The Essence of Stoic Philosophy
Based on Excerpts from Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive & Thrive in any Situation (2012)
ISBN: 1444168711 / Details on Google Books
My previous book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) discussed the relationship between Stoic philosophy and modern cognitive-behavioural therapy in some detail, from an academic perspective. My new book, Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive and Thrive in any Situation (2012), is a self-help guide to psychological resilience-building, based on modern CBT. However, it contains many references to Stoic philosophy.
The first few passages of the philosophical Handbook of Epictetus provide arguably the most authoritative summary of basic Stoic theory and practice. I’ve paraphrased the key statements below, to highlight the possible continuity with CBT and other modern psychological approaches to therapy, etc.
1. The Handbook begins with a very clear and simple “common sense” declaration: Some things are under our control and others are not.
2. Our own actions are, by definition, under our control, including our opinions and intentions (e.g., our commitment to doing what we believe is important), etc.
3. Everything other than our own actions is not under our direct control, particularly our health, wealth and reputation, etc. (Although, we can influence many external things through our actions we do not have complete or direct control over them, they do not happen simply as we will them to.)
4. Things directly under our control are, by definition, free and unimpeded, but everything else we might desire to control is hindered by external factors, i.e., partly down to fate.
5. The Stoic should continually remember that much emotional suffering is caused by mistakenly assuming, or acting as if, external things are directly under our control.
6. Assuming that external events are under our control also tends to mislead us into excessively blaming others and the world for our emotional suffering.
7. However, if you remember that only your own actions are truly under your control and external things are not, then you will become emotionally resilient as a result (“no one will harm you”) and you may achieve a kind of profound freedom and happiness, which is part of the ultimate goal of Stoicism.
8. To really succeed in living as a Stoic, you need to be highly committed, and may need to abandon or at least temporarily postpone the pursuit of external things such as wealth or reputation, etc. (Stoics like Epictetus lived in poverty while others, like Marcus Aurelius, tried to follow the principles while commanding great wealth and power – both were considered valid ways of living for a Stoic but Marcus perhaps believed his complex and privileged lifestyle made commitment to Stoicism more difficult at times.)
9. From the very outset, therefore, the Stoic novice should rehearse spotting unpleasant experiences (“impressions”) and saying in response to them: “You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.” (This resembles one of the early techniques used in CBT, called “distancing”.)
10. After doing this, ask yourself whether the impression involves thinking about what is under your control or not; if not, then say to yourself, “It is nothing to me.” (Meaning, it’s essentially indifferent to me if it’s not under my control – I just need to accept it; although the Stoics did admit that some external outcomes are naturally to be preferred, despite lacking true intrinsic value.)
The Greek word translated as “impression” in Stoic literature is phantasia, which refers to more or less anything that passes through your stream of consciousness, including thoughts, feelings, images, memories, and sense perceptions. The Stoics believed that thoughts, resembling statements, lurk behind every impression, e.g., when I see a tree, I simultaneously experience the verbal thought “That is a tree over there”, without necessarily being aware of the words and concepts being used.
Hence, these last two points, which clearly describe some of the most basic strategies of Stoicism, can be compared to modern “mindfulness and acceptance-based” psychological strategies and the early CBT technique called “cognitive distancing”. Distancing in CBT sometimes uses verbal strategies such as prefacing a thought with the words: “I notice I am having the thought that…” This perhaps comes closest to the Stoic method above. Epictetus follows these remarks with this further advice:
11. When we experience desire or aversion toward certain (good or bad) things, we implicitly assume that they can be controlled (achieved or avoided), and failing to achieve our desires or avoid our aversions causes suffering.
12. Hence, if you attach desire or aversion to external events, outside of your control, and judge them to be inherently good or bad, by definition, you will make yourself vulnerable to suffering.
13. It is better (i.e., more resilient) to shift your efforts to controlling your own actions where you are more assured of success, although even doing this properly may require practice.
14. To help you reduce attachment to external events and therefore suffering, describe to yourself external things you desire in objective language, e.g., of your favourite cup say: “this is a cup I am fond of”, suspending any value-judgements. (A similar technique was touched upon earlier in the chapter on mindfulness of the present moment.)
15. When you engage in any action, therefore, do so with a “reserve clause”, reminding yourself in advance what to expect and preparing to accept external events, insofar as they are outside of your control. (We will return to the “reserve clause” but it’s like the saying, “Do what you must; let happen what may.”)
This final point, about Stoic acceptance, is described as keeping “your will in harmony with Nature.” In modern language, that simply means being willing to accept those things that happen outside of your control, including the outcome (success or failure) of your own actions.
Epictetus concludes this section with the famous saying, which is widely-quoted as a slogan of modern CBT: “It is not things themselves that disturb us but rather our judgements about things.” He suggests we remind ourselves that it is our judgements primarily that cause suffering by asking ourselves whether other people might respond differently to the same problems. However, it’s sometimes overlooked that Stoicism attributes suffering to a particular type of judgement, the cardinal error of judging external things outside of our direct control (health, wealth, reputation, etc.) to be of intrinsic value, leading to a rigid set of beliefs or assumptions, demanding that they absolutely must be pursued or avoided.