A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control
Book PrefaceA Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control
MIKE’S TWENTY-FIVE-YEAR COLLEGE REUNION was supposed to be fun. Instead, it has turned into an exercise in inadequacy. His classmates Aziz and Saliah are still together, ever since their first date during sophomore year; Mike’s marriage lasted less than five years, leading to financial trouble and an insecurity about romantic relationships that persists to this day. Steve, Mike’s former roommate, has maintained his athletic physique while Mike’s potbelly has only grown, a charming accompaniment to his thinning hair. And his roommate’s business major propelled him to the C-suite, while Mike has stagnated in middle management of a company whose products he doesn’t even believe in. Everywhere he looks, Mike sees success, but when he faces himself in the bathroom mirror after the cocktail hour, he can’t help but feel like a failure. No wonder I’m unhappy, he thinks. It’s because my life is bad. Everything is awful.
The Best Bet for Happiness
There are many things that we want and events we want to happen. We want to lose weight, get a raise, be liked by the people around us. Yet for many of us, including Mike, these desires never materialize, and we’re left feeling inadequate, frustrated, and stuck. And it can get worse—for all of us. Things we specifically don’t want actually do happen, ranging from trivialities (getting stuck in traffic) to more serious events (illness and aging). Getting what we don’t want can be just as painful as not getting what we do want, and often more so. However painful this is, we keep on placing the same bad bets, staking our happiness and well-being on things outside our control through a cosmic roll of the dice.
What if we were able to train ourselves to desire only things that are firmly within our control? Then, in a very real sense, we’d always get what we want, and never get what we don’t want. Our happiness would never spill, since the cup of our desires is reliable and holds firm.
The fundamental question, then, is: What is in our complete control? What’s the sure bet?
Betting on Character: Why Stoicism?
The unreliability of obtaining certain goals—such as wealth, health, and other people’s praise—is one of many common problems. Often, even when we’re lucky and achieve these ends, we’re still left wanting. Had Mike gone to his reunion a successful executive with a family and a still-boyish figure, he would likely still have found room for complaint.
Many of us can see this in our own life. We eat great food without even noticing the taste. When we do savor it, the pleasure quickly fades and is forgotten. We have to shift positions to remain comfortable on a nice, new sofa, which will become stained and worn with time. Status is nice when we get it, but we’re often left wanting more. We get a new car that we love at first, but soon take for granted. We may succeed in starting a business, but protecting our assets and growing the company cause us to lose sleep. We can be head over heels for our romantic partner today, but may grow irritated by their habits with time. Many of the things we pursue don’t satisfy—and can’t provide lasting happiness.
Even if we achieve the objects of our transient desires, it doesn’t guarantee we will use them well. What determines their good use is the character of who’s using them. People with poor character put external advantages—money, fame, the U.S. presidency—to bad use. Those with good character will use what they have, no matter how limited, for the benefit of themselves and others. If they endure hardship, or if the cosmic dice roll snake eyes for them, a good character will help them persevere.
Here is the great insight of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism: Shaping your character is ultimately the only thing under your control. So in order to exploit your good luck and cope with the bad luck, it is necessary to be a good person. Through a combination of rational introspection and repeated practice, you can mold your character over the long term.
Betting on your own improvement is a guaranteed win with the biggest payoff. The goal of this book is to help you collect.
Meet the Stoics
Stoicism is a Greco-Roman philosophy that began around 300 bce with Zeno of Citium (modern-day Cyprus). Zeno was a merchant who lost all of his goods in a shipwreck and arrived in Athens with a few drachmas in his pockets. He heard the keeper of a bookshop reading some philosophy and became intrigued by the subject, so he asked the shopkeeper where he could find a philosopher. He was told to follow a man who just happened to pass by, Crates of Thebes. Zeno listened and became Crates’s student. Eventually, Zeno founded his own school, which came to be known as the Stoa, because its members discussed philosophy under a public colonnade called the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch.
During the last century bce, Athens declined as a political power and cultural capital of the ancient world, and Rome took up both mantles. Shortly after, many of the prominent Stoic philosophers became active in the capital of the Roman Empire. The four major ones, whose writings survived to this day, are Seneca, a Roman senator and advisor to the emperor Nero; Musonius Rufus, a renowned teacher; Epictetus, a slave-turned-teacher who was Musonius’s student; and Marcus Aurelius, one of the few philosopher-kings in history. It is from their writings that we will draw inspiration throughout this book.
Stoicism dwindled as a formal school of philosophy by the third century ce, but Stoic ideas continued to influence a number of important thinkers throughout the history of the Western world, from Paul of Tarsus to Augustine of Hippo, from Thomas Aquinas to Descartes, from Montaigne to Spinoza. In the twentieth century, Stoicism inspired a family of schools of effective psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), starting with Albert Ellis’s rational emotive behavior therapy in the 1950s. The ideas of Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, and others have also inspired a vibrant movement of new Stoicism in the modern day, attracting people from all over the world, such as the readers of this book, who want to find a better way to live their lives, and to become full members of the human community.
The Very Basics
While we will explore the philosophy of Stoicism through the fifty-two weekly exercises in this book, we present here a brief overview to get oriented. Stoicism’s basic tenets can be distilled into three major topics: live according to nature, three-disciplined practice, and the dichotomy of control.
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