Why So Stoic?
One of the things I have been reading of late is Epictetus’ Enchiridion, which is a collection of practical precepts from Epictetus, intended to be a sort of pocket book reference for matters of ethics, perspective and behaviors.
There are some useful perspectives, such as what Epictetus considers a proper perspective when handling insults. I even made it into a little quote graphic because I liked the sentiment behind it so much:
I rather like this perspective. Cool guy, Epictetus. He also has a rather biting version of deflating the attack: “If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.” Which, let’s face it, it’s a very cunning way of stealing your critics’ thunder.
But then he goes and talks about how we do not react with intense grief to the notion of, say, a neighbor’s child dying and we say “this is a human accident”- and that we should react in the same manner should one of our children or loved ones die.
Don’t get me wrong, acceptance of the inevitable things such as death are necessary part of becoming functional creatures- but our emotional nature requires that healthy mourning and grief also be given its due. The Stoics, history’s first serious Vulcan role-players* before there were any Vulcans, had serious issues with the concepts pleasure, pain and strong emotions in general. They firmly believed that a person shouldn’t be controlled by their emotions, because emotions were the results in errors of judgement.
The main thrust of Stoic philosophy is that events in themselves are not upsetting to people, but rather it is their judgement of those events. Because people’s regard of death results in very strong emotions (fear, grief, loss), it is that judgement that is wrong. The error of the Stoics came from assuming that all emotional states outside of serenity are wrong, because they bring the person outside of a homeostatic state and into several different levels of distress. Stoics observed that emotions are born out of attachment (to things, to people, to a preferred outcome), and thus those levels of attachment should be reduced. “It’s not the accident that distresses this person,” says Epictetus when speaking of someone weeping in grief at the loss of their son, “because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.”
Epictetus is very severe on what the Stoic’s attitude to this should be: “Don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly, either.” It is telling that, as Irvine points out in “A Guide to the Good Life”, that Roman and Greek Stoics used to practice exercises of the mind where they vividly visualized the loss of people, possessions and relationships as means of desensitizing themselves. Those exercises reflect Epictetus’ maxim that you should “let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you will never entertain any abject thought, not too eagerly covet anything.”
The central error in thinking of the Stoics is that distress and emotional disturbances aren’t necessarily bad. I like to consider emotions as the diagnostic tools of our psyche- The Stoics were partially right in that some emotional reactions are the product of bad judgement- but to generalize all emotions as such is far too simplistic. It’s best if we consider that emotions do tell us something very valuable, but they aren’t telling us things about the world per se as much as they are telling us things about ourselves. How we feel about something or someone is a reaction to assumptions and convictions that we have either consciously or unconsciously integrated
The Stoics do draw a distinction between taking action concerning things that are within our control and things that are not, at least, so it is not the embracing of total passivity- only partial passivity. Still, nevertheless, the Stoics’ disregard for emotion and attachment altogether, instead of questioning how we may have healthy emotions, robbed them of the opportunity to develop a truly meaningful philosophy.