The problem with Stoicism

Some call Stoicism overly negative as its adherents go with the flow and accept whatever happens to them as the natural order of things.

The modern bastardisation of the very word stoic to mean unfeeling, emotionless is a perfect illustration of how it is perceived from the outside.

The Stoic way is to acknowledge "life" as the true path, no matter what, realise that it is our role to ensure that the correct result occurs and live a good life along the way. A good life in this context meaning in accordance with the natural order (see Choices, always choices.)

Stoicism teaches that we must see everything for what it is, recognise its true form and only acknowledge this.

The usual response is that this actually releases us; the removal of attachment to things beyond ourselves is supposedly the greatest freedom. The Stoic wants to see things as they truly are - deliberate, blunt - rather than be naive and ignorant.

But Stoicism is quite reductionist, not in the extreme sense of monism, but in its quest for clarity.

More than thought

Stoicism has been described as the philosophy, even the religion, for slaves and for the military - it is easy to see why. There is an element of separation, of removing yourself from the influence of external forces which would be extremely beneficial in such stressful circumstances.

Indeed Epictetus, one of the preeminent stoic voices, was himself a slave during his early life so this path would have appealed greatly, just as it would to those seeking solace from the horrors of war.

Rather than just a school of philosophy Stoicism is considered a way of life: how to behave in, and respond to, the world - a nontheistic religion of sorts.

This may work in extreme environments but can it really apply to (and can it be lived in) modern society?


But I think the actual problem with Stoicism is that it seeks to remove the mystery. Yes, clarity has a beauty all of its own but there is a joy, excitement and anticipation in not knowing.

The freedom to dream, to interpret, to question all lie with exploration, discovery and ambiguity.

This is not to say that we can't learn valuable lessons and gain precious insight from Stoicism. Just as with other philosophical schools, certain aspects make a good deal of sense and anything which prompts consideration of our attitudes and behaviour can only be a good thing.

Perhaps not being a true adherent, and not living it day to day, I am blinded to its true nature.

The problem with Stoicism

Looking back and moving forward

I will keep constant watch over myself and - most usefully - will put each day up for review - Seneca

It is a good idea to keep a check on our behaviour, to acknowledge what we have done, both good and bad, so that we can moderate and improve.

Seneca asserts that it makes us evil to only look at what we are going to do and ignore what we have done - only forwards, never back.

An exaggeration? Perhaps.

Evil is too strong a word - a touch melodramatic - which might suffer from being lost in translation. Still, we can see what he is getting at.

Of course, we need to assess what goes well and what goes badly. If we do not examine what has already happened then we cannot recognise and repeat good behaviour or learn from our mistakes so as to rectify them.

Keeping check

Stoic advice is writing a journal at the end of the day to evaluate what happened, how you lived. Writers, however, often recommend a daily brain dump first thing in the morning to clear your head before starting anew.

Which path to follow?

Should we favour the raw, immediate, and potentially emotion laden dissection or should we sleep on it and make our assessment with the benefit of hindsight?

Do we need that rawness or is it a hindrance? Are we able to effectively interpret our actions once we have become detached from their immediacy?

There is no single way.

Sometimes we need to shock ourselves into action as we may not see the severity of our behaviour. On other occasions we need to step back, remove ourselves from the situation as an emotionally charged reaction can do more harm than good.

Looking forward

Just as we need to reflect we also need to plan, to look ahead. At the end of each day Seneca may asked himself "What bad habit did I curb today?" or "How am I better?" but this is only half the story.

We need to examine what the new day holds and how we are going to live it. What actions can we take and what lessons can we bring forward to help us negotiate the next round of challenges?

We can assess the past but must not dwell on it; for, being consumed by what has already gone prevents us from dealing with what is yet to come.

Looking back and moving forward

Choices, always choicesComments

A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish - Epictetus

Today's meditation really harkens back to the main principle of Stoicism: you can't change things beyond your control but you can change how you react to them.

The trick is in recognising what you can and can't control.

Just like someone confined to a prison cell, we may think our freedom of choice has been removed but we always have an element of control, no matter how small.

We live to schedules for so many things - transport, school, work; we turn up when we should, do our allotted time and go home when we're finished.

Beyond our control.

The Stoic philosophers believed that our existence was a preset pattern and that living a good life meant doing so in harmony with nature - not nature as we normally understand it but the true order of things.

As Seneca wrote: "Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant."

Whether you believe in fate or not, life has a way of dragging us along; we can resent it or we can embrace it.

We have a choice in how we act, what we do, and how we carry ourselves during the easy times and the difficult.

We can be humble or obnoxious, we can be steadfast or crumble. We can be depressed whilst surrounded by riches or ecstatic despite having nothing. It is how we respond to the situation that defines us, not the situation itself.

It is our choice to be willing or reluctant.

Choices, always choices

On being creative

What is missing? ... The work is quite feasible, and is the only thing in our power. ... Let go of the past. We must only begin. - Epictetus (taken from The Daily Stoic)

How many times have we heard the same sentiment expressed in different ways:

"You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great" - Zig Ziglar

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" - Lao Tzu

"The beginning is the most important part of the work" - Plato

We may have the grandest of ideas but they are all but worthless if we never put them into action.


We get hung up on the idea of being creative. We convince ourselves that being creative means that we must produce amazing art or poetry or literature. We put ourselves under undue pressure by only focusing on the result and cannot see how we can achieve it.

Creative is simply defined as:

relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something

Imagination - check, ideas - of course, create - obviously. But look at that last word: something.

It doesn't say that being creative means we have to produce a masterpiece, it just says we have to create.

Something. Anything.

The artist starts with a rough sketch. The poet begins with a thought, feeling or emotion. The author first conceives a character, event or outcome.

Even masterpieces have very humble beginnings, but they must all start somewhere.

It is the very act of creation that is important, the willingness to start even if there is no end in sight. Nine times out of ten this may be a false start - second bang, the gun goes off again and we are pulled back to the beginning.

Fortunately for us we will not be disqualified and can have as many false starts as we need, as many as it takes to get it right and get over the finish line.

We just have to start.

Write365 - 6th August 2014 (updated)

On being creative

Because always

So, in the majority of other things, we address circumstances not in accordance with the right assumptions, but mostly by following wretched habit - Musonius Rufus.

Today's Daily Stoic meditation began as above, and the added commentary reminded me of this Write365 post:

Because always

There is an amazing hypocrisy in the actions of some. They complain when things don't change, when suggestions are made but passed over, when they feel they are being ignored.

They complain that things are stuck in a rut, that things are done because that's the way it has always been.

However, when reorganisations are made and new management is introduced an overwhelming cynicism prevents them from accepting that change can occur. So, when that new management says that processes will be re-examined and re-evaluated, that things won't be done just because that's the way it always has been, the very same people get defensive.

Better the devil you know?

No one likes change for the sake of it but when genuine change is introduced to improve process a fear kicks in - a fear of that change.

Those previously criticising existing process suddenly defend it, argue against the new ideas, claim that introducing them will be a mistake.

Their argument for doing so? Because this is the way we've always done it!

They can't have it both ways.

Some people get stuck in the same old rut but mistake it for a fond familiarity; they bury themselves so deeply within their comfort zone that they have forgotten how it feels to be outside, to be tested, to have to think for themselves.

No amount of justification can persuade them that change is good, change is an improvement, change is vital.

They just don't listen.

They feel threatened, under attack as if their integrity and work ethic are being questioned. They feel that they are not trusted to do their jobs - how could they be if someone wants to change things?

So, the question becomes: how do you break down that wall? How do you shine a new light into the darkness?

Because it's always been that way is neither a justification nor a defence.

Write365 - 7th October 2014

Further thoughts

"How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but it's really got to want to change"

It may be a silly old joke but many a true word is said in jest. People must want to change and, if they are unsure, that change must be sold effectively.

We demand good reason to change our habits but should always be open to doing so. If we never try a different way we miss out on new experiences and the possibility of finding a better path.

Perhaps a proposed change, even fully embraced, does not provide the expected benefits but we won't know unless we try. We lose little but gain affirmation, surety, the knowledge that we are doing things the best way we can.

And that is all we can hope for.

Because always