The Stoic: Control and Emotions

introduction to stoicism

This is a guest post by @StoicReason. Having recently studied stoicism, I believe this is a concept that will benefit many of you. It’s a philosophy of life that goes well with Red Pill viewpoints and will therefore appeal to some of you.

This is a somewhat complex topic so don’t expect to fully understand everything in this post. Read it and if you decide stoicism might be for you, study some of the recommended sources. Then, come back and you’ll be amazed at how much more you understand.

I’ve only read one book on the topic and am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to write about stoicism. That’s why I’m delighted to welcome @StoicReason to the blog and I’ll let him introduce you to the stoic philosophy.


Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that a man can lose only the life he is living, and he can live no other life than the one he loses. Whether he lives a long time or a short time amounts to the same thing, for the present moment is of equal duration for everyone, and that is all a man possesses. – Marcus Aurelius

All one has to do is a quick google search to see that stoicism is as having a moment. Some argue that the explosion of articles and books by the authors Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, and Massimo Pigliucci brought forth stoicism into the mainstreams consciousness. There is no doubt that these individuals have made stoicism more accessible to the general public, but simply put, there are more reasons for its popularity then these articles and books alone.

 marcus_aurelius

Stoicism is a philosophy; when properly exercised it can be used to enhance or fulfill one’s life. Stoicism uses reason, knowledge of self-control, and the pursuit of a virtuous existence (moral excellence) to guide us on a definitive path. Wikipedia describes stoicism as, “…a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world.” The Urban Dictionary defines a stoic as, “Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.” While trying to interject a little bit of humor here, there is a lot of truth in that statement.

Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. The works of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are at the epicenter of where most get their introduction to stoicism. The truth is, you don’t need to be a scholar of stoicism to see how useful it is in one’s everyday life. Stoicism is a mindset, a set of tools that someone can use to facilitate the alleviation of stress. Stoicism shares a commonality with “mindfulness” practice, wherein someone trains the brain to concentrate on the moment and not the past or future. Stoics consider the present as the only pertinent reality we have. Here we will concentrate on control and emotion in our lives from a stoic view.  

So what’s the point of it all? Simply this. You embarked; you sailed, you landed. Now, disembark! – Marcus Aurelius

Control

It is believed that the main reason we suffer is that we try to assume control of everything in our lives. One of stoicism’s main teachings is to know what you can and cannot control. Today there is so much information barraging the average person that one could be easily fooled into thinking that everything can be controlled. I would argue that a lot can be “controlled”, if you correctly define control. Control for our purposes here means taking a situation and designing it in a way that will benefit you. The problem is, the past is done and the future is uncertain, so there are only so many things that one can do to adequately control a situation. In theory control is more a state of mind than an actual physical act. A stoic lives in the moment because for them nothing else exists. The best way to envision this is to control a situation by doing everything you can in that moment to the point that there is nothing more you can do, and then letting it be. Liken this to writing down notes for a speech and then waiting for the speech. You can analyze your approach all day, and update your notes, but ultimately you will have to stop planning and do the presentation.

The Enchiridion by Epictetus explains, “Some things are in our control and others are not.” He goes on to say that our own actions are what are truly within our control. These actions are not always physical; how we react mentally is also our own action. Epictetus also says, “…those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.” Ponder this; if you are truly not in control of something it is therefore weak. It’s weak because it’s out of your sphere of influence or there is a lack of data to assume a conclusion.  If it was controllable it would be real and easier to regulate. When we think about the future it gives us anxiety, because we are trying to control something that as of yet cannot be fully realized. You can plan, you can prepare, but there has to be a time and place where you realize that the future is uncertain and statistically improbable to resolve every imaginable outcome.  As Napoleon said, “He who has courage despises the future.” This does not suggest for one to be timid or refrain from planning, rather it implies to do what you can now and have confidence that your current actions will help shape your future when it arrives. A confident stoic doesn’t worry about the future because he has already done everything he can in the now.

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In Meditations Marcus Aurelius says, “No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?” As stated above, the past does not exist and neither does the future. Realizing this will have a profound effect on how we go about our daily lives.

There is an alternate view to the axiom of control, and that is the fact that we control what is within us, specifically our emotional reactions. Our anxiety comes from trying to control things that are external, but we can control how we react to those external situations. Victor Frankl in his book Mans Search for Meaning gives us an example when he says, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”  I believe this is a grey area, a space that many of us will never be able to access; it’s the space between a stimulus and our reaction. If we were able to voluntarily not react to every negative stimulus, our lives would be psychologically improved.

A stoic does not react, he responds. He separates and looks at the situation as a third party, detaching him from what the beneficial reaction would be. If you were to get a phone call that brought bad news, what would be the point of reacting like a mad man? Will it fix the situation at hand or make it worse? Typically it will do nothing but make the situation worse. So while it’s easier said than done, the best response would be to examine and analyze the situation for what it is. If the outcome is self-defeating then it’s counterintuitive to exacerbate the situation by losing your composure. As Epictetus stated, “you have to know what’s in your control and what is not”, if something is out of your control then don’t waste any more energy on it.

Emotions

One of the big misconceptions of stoicism is its reputation of being based upon a lack of emotion.  Like the urban dictionary definition, stoics do have emotion, but they use it to their benefit. Another way to describe this would be stoics don’t let their emotions define them or guide them. It’s not that emotions aren’t a factor in someone’s life or path; rather emotions shouldn’t be the only component of one’s life. As someone once said, “Emotions shouldn’t be the sole reason you make any one decision.” Another example would be when people say they have a passion for something. Passion is a taboo subject to stoics, which implies emotion and very little reason. You can have all the passion in the world, but how realistic are those feelings? Stoics are known for their rationality, and emotions often override our reasoning capabilities. In a sense reason is like a meditation, you analyze the situation at face value and weight how beneficial the emotional reaction are. Many times the reaction serves little to no purpose in relation to the intended outcome.

There is no doubt that negative emotions can serve as a kind of warning system during certain situations. Though, these negative emotions run out of control and go beyond any warning system. I would go as far as to say that there is no purpose in constantly reviewing or being engulfed in negative emotions. We have enough external warning systems in our society. By utilizing media and our own daily analysis, we don’t need to become our negative emotions. Being paranoid or apprehensive served as a survival technique for primitive man when he existed in a hostile world. Now these feelings have adverse effects on our physical wellbeing. Stoics pride themselves of living in a tranquil state that has very little to no negative emotional impact. This is at the core a state that we should all strive to be in; no one, even a stoic, is perfect, but striving to be free of negative emotions is a worthy goal. The bottom line is this: negative emotions will almost always triumph over reason. A stoic is aware of that and controls his emotional responses accordingly.

None of this means that negative emotions can’t be used in some form for the stoic. Negative visualization is used by the stoic daily.  When someone takes the worst case scenario, views it, and analyzes it, that in turn takes away its power. When you know and embrace the worst case scenario, it makes it less intrusive. It’s easily explained by stating that there is a positive aspect to staring down a negative situation and resolving it with little to no effort. Negative stimulus feeds on trying to get your attention, but when you forcibly give it attention it crawls away. We run from these scenarios because they make us uncomfortable, but if we stuck around for a second they would go away. Give your attention to things you normally wouldn’t and watch how much control you will gain over them.

Another angle of negative visualization and the associated emotions are how you present ideas, or goals, consciously. If you were to wake up every day and tell yourself that you will play in the NBA but are horrible at basketball, you are setting yourself up for failure.  This may seem like an obvious concept, but telling ourselves what will happen is a surefire way to encounter those negative emotions if that goal isn’t met. You are putting yourself in a box, instead of being realistic to the fact that this goal might not happen (negative visualization). A stoic’s mindset will not only be on the goal but on the path to get there, leaving the end goal as something they feel indifferent about. Yes, most of us want to achieve our goals, so why else would we be on a path to get there?  The reality is all we can do is attempt to achieve our goal and refrain from assuming that it will automatically happen. When a stoic thinks like this, he creates an insurance policy for the realistic expectation of failure; it’s as if he has already visited this possible outcome. He focuses on what can be completed now, which also gives him better chance of success.

Epictetus quote

Many will wonder why they are supposed to work hard and disregard  the end goal; it’s not that a stoic won’t think about the end goal, it’s that his real goal is to do what he can right now and be indifferent to the outcome. This doesn’t mean he is passive and does not want the outcome to be positive, it’s he is emotionally in control enough to where he can handle whatever comes in the future. If someone is so fixated on the end game they will miss the experience of the journey, making the completion less attainable or worse desirable. A stoic will do everything he can to set himself up for a good experience, no matter what the situation is. He will be holistic in the approach, not stuck on any one part and he will be indifferent to the outcome. This is generally not always an easy task for an alpha personality, but when practiced will produce more favorable outcomes. Sometimes letting things happen and not looking too far down the road is the “hack” that allows us to reach our goals.

No one can lose either the past of the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs? – Marcus Aurelius

This is a quick overview of a few stoic components that can help anyone in their life. No one piece of writing can answer everyone’s questions, so I would encourage readers to look into stoic writings like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the Enchiridion by Epictetus, along with more current writings like The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. If studied and used correctly, stoicism can become a life changing experience, but remember that practicing is the difference between reading and doing.

Twitter: @StoicReason