The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone

Isn’t it more appropriate for us humans to endure and be strong? We understand, after all, that we suffer for the sake of something good, either to help our friends, to aid our city, to fight on behalf of women and children, or for the most important and weighty reason of all, to be good and just and self-controlled. No one achieves this without pain. And so I conclude that because we humans acquire all good things by pain, the person who is unwilling to endure pain all but condemns himself to being worthy of nothing good.

Musonius Rufus

As someone who runs along a seesaw with psychology at one end and philosophy at the other, I try to stay balanced and centred in an attempt to be objective, unbiased and unprejudiced. Psychologists are taught to find evidence by conducting experiments on humans and non-human animals, but the search for evidence at the moment is heartbreakingly painful. Statistics are grim reminders of facts. I don’t want to believe them because they are too awful to face.

The proportions and percentages don’t matter. All lives are equal and every life that ends disturbs me. Death is the price we pay for living, it is that unwelcome visitor who will come knocking one day. Stoics aim to display courage in the face of it and memento mori is a daily mantra. Negative visualisation is recommended, but it is not for the faint hearted. The shock can be stressful for sensitive souls. I hear the gentle dulcet tone of Derek Parfit describing how simple it can be to cease to exist. As a parent I don’t mind leaving the party but my concern for those left behind never quells. 

During my Logotherapy training one distressing part of the course focussed on writing and sharing autobiographies. Viktor Frankl didn’t conceptualise this methodology, but some teachers of his psychological theory have incorporated it into their curriculum. In fact, he was extremely reluctant to record his own experiences in Man’s Search for Meaning. When he was eventually persuaded to, he rapidly fired it out in a period of nine days.

I was ever so slightly disappointed in recent times, when factual inaccuracies in his account regarding the amount of time he spent in some of those places, came to light. Together with Marcus Aurelius and my long departed Grandad, Frankl had become a role model for me to look up to. The longer I dwelt on it though, the more I realised it is of little consequence whether it was Theresienstadt, Dachau or Auschwitz. Those were all places of evil created by humans and maybe Frankl or his translators wanted to put emphasis on the one that was most widely known, for the worst of all possible reasons. Furthermore, I came to realise how tiresome a woman’s search for father figures can be, whilst acknowledging that role models should not be worshipped. 

Creating one’s own narrative of the past can be pleasurable depending on how we choose to frame it. We can sift through what we think we remember and put our own spin on it. We can run up the molehills and slide down the mountains safe in the knowledge it is all in the past. We can choose to feel relieved and chuffed with ourselves for coping with struggles and battling through pain. But even though it has all happened it doesn’t stop existing.

Our memories are part of us. We are our experiences. You can try and file the sad and traumatic ones in the completed filing cabinet and throw away the key, but they have a particularly insidious habit of leaking out just when they’re least needed. Maybe if you step up to the podium to give a presentation, or if your child asks why the world is such a bad place, you may find the burden of your experiences seems heavier than ever before.  

Writing can have a cathartic or therapeutic effect. Journaling is very high on the list of Stoic priorities. Marcus and Massimo are testament to its value. Donald encourages us to record our anxious thoughts. We can make our thoughts into words before they become intentions or actions. We can distance ourselves from them and make room to create a space. That space is invaluable, unquantifiable and safe. Freedom exists there, in a gap between the mind and the body.

This place can be anything you want it to be and it doesn’t need to have a name. The ancient Stoics may have called it the soul, and some may call it the spirit. Frankl named it the noetic dimension, the part of us that experiences emotions, love and creativity. The individual bit that makes us uniquely different from other humans, even though collectively we are the same species. 

But “wait a minute” as Homer would say. Finding this space of freedom may require faith or belief. Maybe a leap too far into a fantasy land somewhere between fact and fiction. Many experimental psychologists get fidgety and dismissive about such non-physical stuff. I can understand why.

Indoctrination and inculcation have occurred in many settings. Various schools of psychological analysis and therapy have been freely associated with dubious methods. Psyches are delicate things and they should be treated with care, the relationship between psychotherapist and patient being key to unlocking the fortress.

We’d be lost without psychologists who study our behaviour statistically. Without them we wouldn’t know how effective modern Stoic therapy is. Tim uncovers the evidence and tells all the Tiggers in the Stoicon room that ‘zest’ is the property that increased the most overall amongst participants in Stoic Week. I’m confused though because I don’t know how zest can live in the same room with ‘amor fati’ above the door. 

I need to run back to the other end of the seesaw in search of wonder. Philosophy keeps the endless search for meaning alive. Without the ceaseless attempts to gain wisdom through analysis and argument we may as well give up on existence. I crawl out of my safe space where I have been hiding from the world news and seek sanctuary by listening to That Philosophy Guy on YouTube. I

’m delighted to hear encouraging tales of Stoic endurance during the current crisis, as well as helpful tips on how to think about what’s inside the box. The mention of Alasdair Macintyre reminds me that miracles can happen to those who believe them. I smile because another human laughs at ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. Larry David, I hope you know how much you have helped my family as we have eagerly gathered on the sofa to share humour during this strange situation.

Oh gosh, there it is in print – the ‘H’ word. ‘Hope’ is a word I can’t recall seeing too often in ancient Stoic texts. I wish it was a preferred different or a preferred indifferent, or maybe a dispreferred indifferent or a dispreferred different. I’m losing the dichotomy of control and need help! Being helpless and feeling hopeless is not a good thing or a good look. 

Why did the Stoics choose fate over hope? Maybe they preferred to stay grounded like the Buddhists, living for the moment instead of having one foot in the past and one in the future. The Christians entered the fray to spread the word of hope, and being the eternal optimist I get it. Life can be pretty grim without hope. Not to mention how we couldn’t have had that movie classic ‘Monty Python’s Life Of Brian’ without Jesus on our side. However, unless you believe in those miracles that didn’t exactly end well.

A few years ago, as a rookie philosophy student at The Open University my baptism of fire began with David Hume. Nigel Warburton gave me plenty to get my teeth stuck into, so I continued to remain a bundle of emotions with a sceptical perspective. But the Stoics were more successful. They threw aside hope and embraced fate instead. They loved the idea so much they wore the T-shirts with amor fati slogans. If you are happy with anything life throws at you, hope is surplus to requirements. The Stoic sage doesn’t need it. I wonder whether modern Stoics would consider opening the door to let hope in, if it is an intention you wish for others, but not for yourself. 

Truth be told I don’t think some of us are built like those ancients. I struggle to identify with Marcus, the male in his armour heading into battle with a plague hot on his heels. Even Musonius, the most feminist Stoic, equates courage with ‘manliness’ (andreia). I’m inclined to agree with Frankl who doesn’t reduce the human person to gender. We are simply all the same apart from dangly bits and hidden crevices.

Many of us have grown up with a hopeful mindset and it’s rare to find a child who doesn’t believe in magic. Hope seems to be in innate part of being human but sometimes sadly it can be extinguished. Being separated from early caregivers is not an isolated strange situation but it can stay with us. Every day we grow like onions adding layer upon layer of experience. We are at the mercy of our environment and those who inhabit it, whilst we are also products of our physiology where genetic and biological factors play a part. No wonder sometimes in later life it can be hard to find meaning in it all.  

Consequently, I take care not to overburden myself with total responsibility for my well-being. Both Stoicism and Logotherapy are forms of top-down philosophical and psychological treatments. Whilst having some value for self-care during the current crisis it may be unwise to be solely reliant on either. They both may be needed but are a big ask of many on a continuous basis. Maybe it’s better to leave some resources in the tank for when they are essential.

Have another read of Antonia Macaro’s book ‘More Than Happiness’. Be mindful and stay safe in the moment. Nevertheless, by deep searching I should be able to gain inspiration from the Stoics and the one who springs to mind is Epictetus. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches, and he may be a carrier of guilt and shame. Moving from slavery to mastery is never easy. Epictetus isn’t going to tell you what you want to hear to stay in your good books or indulge that inner child you may be clinging on to.

Maybe there are some caveats in his Discourses that should carry warning signs. Even allowing for context, Epictetus wouldn’t be welcome at many feminist soirees. Then there is his controversial open door policy. Young people should be especially wary of how they interpret it. In our modern times nobody should ever feel their suffering is too great to bear. Talk to someone please and always remember you are loved. 

Concerns aside, Epictetus speaks to me like Frankl does. They both believe in the power of the ‘will’. In Frankl’s case it is the ‘will to meaning’ whilst Epictetus wears ‘prohairesis’ on his chest. He is the Stoic existentialist who believes we have the freedom to make a choice. Epictetus reminds us it is not simply a matter of what we can and can’t control based on what feels good or bad. We need to hit our personal gym and work on attitude.

The human capacity for reason not only makes us rational beings but opens up a space where we can develop our moral character. By lifting the bar and increasing virtue we become better people for those around us, not for ourselves. Stoic medals aren’t won for being superior to anyone else or by telling people how they should live the good life. In fact, there are no medals. No wonder Stoics brim over with zest. Zest is motivational and inspirational but not goal driven like hope. For Stoics, zest can be that enthusiasm or spirit that spurs them on without the need to search for rewards. Thank you Epictetus for providing me with inspiration. 

Resources now abound. I can retreat into my soul and work on virtue. I can utilise my noetic space and avail of freedom. And last but not least I can go to The Good Place and laugh. In any of these places I have to be prepared to endure anything that comes my way. Good and bad, pleasure and pain, suffering and death. Bring it on! That’s what life is all about. 

So, you would expect when error involves the things of greatest importance, our natural confidence is perverted into rashness, thoughtlessness, recklessness and shamelessness. At the same time, all fear and agitation, we exchange our natural caution to the will and functions of the will, and the mere wish will bring with it the power of avoidance. But if we direct it at what is outside us and none of our responsibility, wanting instead to avoid what’s in the control of others, we are necessarily going to meet with fear, upset and confusion. Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear. Which is why we praise the poet who wrote, ‘Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is’.

 Epictetus

Alison McCone is a lifelong learner about to graduate with a BA in Philosophy and Psychological Studies. She is in the process of completing a thesis in Logotherapy devoted to her husband, two sons, family and friends. She is also a Volunteer at Fighting Words in Ireland.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

7 thoughts on “The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone”

  1. Thank you for the article, Alison

    Liked your take on Epictetus as on a “Stoic existentialist”.

    But doesn’t “We are simply all the same apart from dangly bits and hidden crevices.” seem contradicting to “… whilst we are also products of our physiology where genetic and biological factors play a part.”?

    1. Thanks so much Oleg for your kind reply and your question. In my research to date it is very challenging to find agreement from philosophers and psychiatrists/psychologists on this area which has become increasingly relevant and current, i.e. the distinction between gender and biological sex. In relation to psychological counselling I have been taught the bio-psycho-social model. In Logotherapy Frankl uses a tridimensional model of the human person comprising of soma (body), psyche (mind) and noetic or nous (spirit). Gender would not play a part in Logotherapy because a person is treated on a noetic level which is considered to be independent of gender or biological sex. I don’t know how modern Stoicism as therapy addresses this whole area. Hopefully my contradictions will help to reveal some answers. Best wishes.

    2. Hi again Oleg and all people who may be reading. After thinking further about the writing of Epictetus, Musonius and the ancient Stoics it may be fair to suggest they too were working from a biopsychosocial model. They were very accommodating of the female potential to do philosophy whilst understandably recognising that sometimes males possessed more physical strength and able to perform particular tasks. The physical properties of male and female bodies were designed to form various biological functions, e.g. reproduction. Maybe from an ancient Stoic position ‘will’ and ‘ability to reason’ are not specific to gender and all humans have the ability to do either? More food for thought. Best wishes again.

  2. Yes I agree completely with you Robert. The ancient Stoics were very considerate of their female folk, as expressed in the quote from Musonius above. Cleopatra seemed to have been a very astute political leader well able to hold her own. Marcus’s wife I believe accompanied him on many trips to battle but I can’t find much out about her. Even though I have no opinion on it I think though some modern philosophers do take issue with the Stoics and gender (Martha Nussbaum has done on occasion?). As someone who has lived my life as a female (which of course some may argue has been socially constructed) it didn’t deter me from benefitting from learning and benefitting from many aspects of Stoic philosophy. I wonder do people from all genders see it that way. Food for thought. In Ireland we have never had a female taoiseach yet either. Best wishes.

  3. Thank you Morton for your very kind words and it is so nice to know you found some enjoyment from mine. The great Stoics certainly do give us plenty to get our heads around and if we can become better people by listening to them it’s so worth it. You must have been very inspired twenty four years ago. Best wishes on your continuing journey.

  4. Dear Alison,

    I so enjoyed reading your article The Inspiring Stoic. Twenty four years ago I attended a weekend study as part of a program I sent our adopted daughter to attend. The program for her was 9 months for me it would become a lifetime. Out of this weekend program came my commitment to spend every remaining day to become a better person.

    I want to say thank you. You have a wonderful gift of delivery on a subject that is often difficult for someone with an increasingly aging brain.

    Namaste

  5. Thank you for the post! I do have to comment on the gender issue which comes up so often and in my opinion is so badly interpreted. The ancient writings generally come from a time where life expectancy was about 40 years, if you had 10 children maybe 2-3 of them made it to adulthood. There were no machines so agriculture, manufacturing, wars etc., relied on physical strength. In this context a gender divide is the only way to survive, women primarily made babies and men generally did the heavy (physical) lifting. Noteworthy, that in spite of this situation ancient societies were also ruled by queens, Cleopatra immediately comes to mind and Nero killed his mother for political reasons etc. Apparently these societies didn’t have a problem with a woman running the show. It’s 2020 and the United States still hasn’t had a female president, I’m not sure we should be too critical on the ancients regarding gender issues…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.