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How to Become a Stoic

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
"The Serenity Prayer"

Stoics are thought to be apathetic, strong-willed and impenetrable men. When one is called a Stoic nowadays, it is usually not taken to be a compliment but a lack--a lack of emotion and concern, a deathly indifference to things, and, sometimes correctly, being an ascetic monk detached from the world. And since they are said to face death squarely early on and to not fear it at any time, they might as well be considered already dead to the world. Taking Socrates seriously--who they thought was the first Stoic--they adapted his maxim that philosophy was nothing other than learning how to die.

It was no coincidence that Roman soldiers were taught Stoicism and would even bring Epictetus's (the founder of the school) Manual to battle. And Epictetus's most famous student, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose own Meditations has become more acknowledged than his master's remaining works, was a great general of warfare. There must be something in Stoicism that encouraged courage, or better, taught that since death was inevitable, there is nothing to lose in battle as there is really nothing to win by extending one's life for a few days or years. Stoics then, vulgarly reinterpreted today, must be like the suicide bombers that religious fundamentalists farm and brainwash in order to destroy not only others but themselves as well. Seneca, the great Roman and Stoic philosopher, said after all that "be what it may, the end is swift."

But that is far from the case. Stoicism is not a call to death but a call to life--to participate in it and not to hide from it.

The key word that Stoicism builds upon is ataraxia or "tranquility." The goal of a life lived well is to achieve the highest level of peace possible to man amidst uncertainty, trouble, and ultimately death. We already know what it feels like when we are as serene as a deep lake which does not move or like a babe in its sweet sleep. But tranquility is not a state of the mind which has become simply devoid of thoughts or a heart from which all emotions have left; to be sure, tranquility is that eerie silence against the noise of the world, like being in the eye of the storm. Peace is not added on from the outside like a gift or dependent on fortune like favorable weather; it has to be won and it has to be achieved within.

And how is ataraxia to be achieved? Stoics teach us that at bottom it is a matter of acknowledging what I can control (e.g., what is within my power) and what I cannot control (e.g., what is outside of it). Knowing the difference between the two, that is, naming the things that are within me (my will, emotions, and actions) from the things that are without me (or can do without me such as other people's perception and thoughts, calamities, events) leads me to accepting my limitations and therewith my possibilities. More importantly, by knowing my limits and possibilities, I then am able to understand and control my desires, attitudes and thoughts; and these "subjective" emotions, moods and reflections when handled properly give me serenity--as when let loose can only give torment to my soul.

Because Stoic "ontology," long before Kant, says that things are simply what they are. But what leads us to confusion and thus difficulty is our having varied interpretations of what these things are for us (investment of importance and fondness); being emotionally affected in various ways by these things (experience of pleasure, contentment, and happiness); culminating in the greatest sin of all to the Stoic: attachment (to things, the self and others).

And attachment is only possible because of one's own emotions towards this or that; things naturally do not cling to anything else other than to its self as the law of individuation has forever decreed to let things be autonomous, that is, to leave other things alone. The rock does not care where it sits, be it on this patch of grass or on that mountain. The lamprey seems to be the most attached animal of all; but it does not care if its sticks to this shark or that whale as any old swimmer would do. But this man, of all creatures, has the this absurd liking of not only preying on things but wanting to own them, which really means preying on it exclusively by marking it as "mine."

We become attached when we purchase a car or a piece of land; when we have our own cliques of friends; when we have our favorite church thinking that the God is more present there than in the other chapel; when we keep all sorts of memorabilia and do not throw anything away; when we realize we cannot go it alone. Attachment, like a monkey hanging on a limb all day afraid of going down, is nothing but self security in order to hide the in-security of being alone. This is why attachments, like property, are like self-investments that spread out one's assets to be more "liquid" and "diverse." Like assets, these attachments must necessarily be "paid for" by one's money or one's love--and the difference matters no longer.

Stoicism is precisely that call to cut off all attachments. But it does not mean dispossession like selling lock, stock and barrel; it means changing our perceptions, attitudes and the importance we give to these things. Things are what they are; but what is within my control is how I relate to these things and how I think them. Things are essential to daily living; but they are not essential to the life of the mind or the spirit. Things come and go; accept this and you will no more leave them alone like a leper but embrace them more because it is here now when it can be gone in the next moment. The ones I love will die--the more then that I am called to love them but in a transfigured love: a love that loves no longer because of what it gets in return or what it experiences as pleasure, but a love which ends and stays with the beloved for what she is by herself and for herself.

And I, too, will die: and unlike the suicide that does not understand death and therewith does not give importance to life, my knowledge of mortality enables me to live a well-lived life, that is, to live a life without fear--which at bottom means to love as "love has no fear" (St. Paul 1 Ps 4:8).

Knowledge and reason (logos), after all, are what sustain and ground Stoics. Emotions and desires deceive us and will more than likely lead us to attachment--and thus to spiritual unease. But reason, a detached reason that is, tells me what I must do and what I must be. This is why ataraxia has to first be contemplated upon actively: that is, it has to be reflected upon and must be enforced upon the passions and emotions--as monks do, as philosophers do. Peace, like all mortal things, is possible for those who understand and those who are strong enough to live in that wisdom. "First, say to your self what you would be," says Epictetus, "then do what you have to do." There is soldier-like simplicity in this.

But far from being men of steel biting bullets and blindly marching to their death, Stoics are men who are not afraid to lose anything because they never owned anything. They are men who skip instead of marching and men who love to live while living.

Socrates reaches out for the hemlock in the middle of his speech about the immortality of the soul. His attached followers, including Plato (seated at the end of the bed), weep the death their master willingly accepts. "The Death of Socrates" (1787) by Jacques-Louis David.



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