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The Stoicism Thread
Old 02-10-2020, 05:06 PM   #1
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The Stoicism Thread

I've been reading and watching things about Stoicism in the past year or so and have often thought about starting a Stoicism thread here. I'm finally doing it. I think quite a few of us are natural stoics (I wonder what Myers-Briggs type Seneca was, hehe!)

Anyway, I thought I'd start this thread with ramble / "book report" based on William B. Irvine's book "The Stoic Challenge." The book is "...an exercise in what might be thought of as twenty-first-century Stoicisim." Irvine starts with details from Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers and adds what we 'know' from modern psychology, for the purpose of living a better life.

One thing I was surprised to learn is that the original Stoic philosophers were not "stoic" in the way we think of the term (emotionless). Irvine says that they only tried to limit negative emotion, but positive emotion was fine (as long as one wasn't too attached to it).

An idea Irvine presents that I found interesting is that our subconcious self pulls a lot of tricks on us, and so it's only fair that we respond with tricks of our own. And the main trick is "negative visualization". This will sound to the uninitiated as a way to make yourself miserable, rather than more resilient, because what the technique is to think about how bad a situation could be. But you don't dwell on it. You imagine a bad thing, then you pop into reality and are thankful that the bad thing isn't reality.

Much of the book concerns setbacks and how we typically deal with them. Your choice of the framing of a setback can make all the difference for how it affects you. The "Blame Frame", where some external thing, often a person, gets blamed for the setback you experience. That's setting you up for more suffering because not only must you deal with the setback, but also you deal with the emotional turmoil what that person "did to you". Irvine goes on to say the the default response, that of being a victim, is aided by psychologists and politicians, but it's a step you can skip. He says go straight to "acceptance" rather than grind through the first four steps (denial, anger, bargaining, and depression). He doesn't all them "snowflakes", but Irvine says that protecting kids from all obstacles, we're making it harder for them when they get out on their own due to lack of practice being resilient.

So then we get practical advice for how to manage setbacks: pretend it's a game. The author talks about imaginary "stoic gods" that set-up this situation to snag him. Then he uses the stuff that makes us human (logic, smarts, control of our emotions) to puzzle the best way out of the mess. You get two grades on each encounter with difficulty: 1) how well you managed your emotions, and 2) how well you worked-around the problem. You got angry, blamed someone, and because of your high emotions, you did something to make things worse. That would earn two "F's", which is the often ones default behaviour. But what if you got two "A's"? A setback could be a source of pride! The primary duty when encountering an obstacle is to find a way to manage emotions, and the book mentions it's not putting a lid on hot a boiling caldron, but rather techniques to keep the pot from boiling in the first place. There are various "framing techniques" and also the ubiquitous counting to ten and framing the situation as a test of our resilience, all of which will put our higher mind into gear to keep the lizard brain from taking over.

One big reason for me writing this book report is so I could talk about something I've been attracted to, but didn't know what to call it. But now I know that it's called "Stoic adventure travel". I put myself into situations where I'm likely to have to "think on my feet". The specific setbacks can't be known, or it wouldn't count. But if you set out on a 1200km journey across a country where you don't speak the language riding on a tiny, unreliable vehicle, yeah, you're likely going to have some things to deal with. But trying anything new, where you might encounter less than comfortable results can qualify as, what Irvine calls "practicing for the Stoic test." And along with that practice, you might choose an activity that qualifies as "toughness training", which is expanding your comfort zone. I know when I'm riding, I might be cold, wet, hot, thirsty, hungry, etc. But when I'm on an adventure, none of those things get to me. And I find when I get home, I'm less likely to be bothered by those things; these engineered stressors make life better. Here's a youtube video, not about an adventure I've undertaken, but of what the speaker calls "Planned Grit":

The last chapter in the book is about death. And we learn that negative visualization doesn't work for that (read the book if you want the explanation for that, but I'll say non-existance is hard to contemplate). The point here is to bring up the idea of "last-time meditation", covered in that chapter. Maybe this will be the last time you read a post on e-r.org. I hope not, but there are plenty of things you've already done for the last time. Occasionally thinking about this will give you an appreciation for the here and now. Another technique is "prospective restrospection", where you imagine a future self pining for the situation you find yourself in, for instance you walk through the parking lot to see in the distance someone smash your car and drive off. Don't want to re-live that? What if your future self was blind and in a wheel chair? Might be nice to have a nice stroll in a parking lot! We are reminded that the Stoics didn't suggest that dwelling on these kinds of things is the right approach, but occasional, brief visits with these kinds of thoughts can be revitalizing.

So that's my ramble. I've also read Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life", which is a longer read than this book and dwells more on the specific historical figures from Greece and Rome. Both are good, but "The Stoic Challenge" gets to the heart of what you can do to have a better life (the sub title is "A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Reslient). That seems like a better life to me, yes?
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Old 02-10-2020, 05:12 PM   #2
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It's a popular subject on Youtube. From what I've gleaned, it seems like an early version of what I know as cognitive therapy -- that is, working with your thoughts, beliefs, expectations, etc., to help produce a happier and less painful/stressful life.
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Old 02-10-2020, 05:42 PM   #3
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Interesting topic; Stoic philosophy is an interest of mine as well. I started with reading a few modern authors explaining concepts in easy to understand language, but have recently gone looking for good translations of classic works. I found a lot to like in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and I think Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life is something I would reread regularly. The Enchiridion is on my list to read this year. I just downloaded, but haven’t started, The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth which looks like it might be a helpful reference with some of the concepts. What appeals to me most about this philosophy is that it really does help to keep all the day to day stuff of life in perspective. I wish I’d known more about this way of thinking earlier in life; it would have helped me deal with a lot of angsty situations with more equanimity.
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Old 02-10-2020, 06:04 PM   #4
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I have made practical use (in commuting) of Marcus Aurelius's meditation about telling yourself every day you will meet with stupidity, selfishness, etcl, but to remind yourself it's in you as well.

And the most interesting (to me) aphorism of Marcus Aurelius, which I do not yet fully understand or accept is:
"Loss Is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight."

But as for "negative visualization" I can never not think of Woody Allen's "On the Horrible and Miserable" in Annie Hall
:-)
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Old 02-10-2020, 06:07 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by sengsational View Post
I've been reading and watching things about Stoicism in the past year or so and have often thought about starting a Stoicism thread here.
I'm adamantly opposed to stoicism - it does not work. Look what happened in Venezuela!
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Old 02-11-2020, 06:01 AM   #6
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So then we get practical advice for how to manage setbacks: pretend it's a game. The author talks about imaginary "stoic gods" that set-up this situation to snag him.
sengsational, interesting thread. I guess one of my issues with stoicism is wondering whether it is mostly for those who are financially independent. I can imagine so many situations where one is trapped in poverty - or, formerly, servitude - and options are few to non-existent, and there is no way out. Every day you have to deny what you are feeling and try to be some image that others expect. Does stoicism in such a case just tell you to disregard your feelings? I remember one of the original stoics was a slave, can't remember which one. I'm sure this situation is dealt with within the philosophy, but I'm not really convinced that "I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul" is reality-based. We can all think of examples.

Also, the philosophy seems opposed to much of modern psychological theory, which often tells us that our "negative emotions" are not to be disregarded. I'm not sure I agree with that either, again because of situations where we HAVE to disregard them.

Again, I'm sure there are answers within stoicism to these objections, as they are pretty basic. But it's hard for me to imagine going through life repeating to myself over and over "it doesn't matter, it's not real" even though I suppose it gets easier in time. (Hey, isn't that the premise of "The Matrix?" And I've heard that there is a cosmic argument to be made that none of this life is real.)
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Old 02-11-2020, 06:31 AM   #7
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After my divorce, I dove into the ancient literature about the stoic philosophy of life. It helped boost my resilience, no doubt about it.
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Old 02-11-2020, 06:47 AM   #8
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I believe Stoicism also inspired the Serenity Prayer in addition to cognitive behavior therapy. I have How to Be a Stoic (Massimo Pigliucci) in my TBR pile and fished it out now that there’s a chance to chat on it!
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Old 02-11-2020, 08:30 AM   #9
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I always think of Stoicism as being a form of practical realism. And of course, not letting oneself be ruled by emotion.
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Old 02-11-2020, 12:48 PM   #10
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I'm adamantly opposed to stoicism - it does not work. Look what happened in Venezuela!
LOL - took me a minute...
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Old 02-11-2020, 01:15 PM   #11
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One big reason for me writing this book report is so I could talk about something I've been attracted to, but didn't know what to call it. But now I know that it's called "Stoic adventure travel". I put myself into situations where I'm likely to have to "think on my feet". The specific setbacks can't be known, or it wouldn't count. But if you set out on a 1200km journey across a country where you don't speak the language riding on a tiny, unreliable vehicle, yeah, you're likely going to have some things to deal with. But trying anything new, where you might encounter less than comfortable results can qualify as, what Irvine calls "practicing for the Stoic test." And along with that practice, you might choose an activity that qualifies as "toughness training", which is expanding your comfort zone. I know when I'm riding, I might be cold, wet, hot, thirsty, hungry, etc. But when I'm on an adventure, none of those things get to me. And I find when I get home, I'm less likely to be bothered by those things; these engineered stressors make life better. Here's a youtube video, not about an adventure I've undertaken, but of what the speaker calls "Planned Grit":
I just watch the above travel video. It would also make a good post in the Travel subforum.
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