Monthly Archives: May 2014

#5: Cynics, Stoics, and Other People

Medical researchers recently made headlines when they reported that cynics are more likely to develop dementia than non-cynics. In the study, published in the journal Neurology, nearly 1,500 people, whose average age was 71, were asked how much they agree with statements like these: “I think most people would lie to get ahead” and “It is safer to trust nobody.”

Several years later, these individuals were tested for dementia. It was discovered that those who formerly displayed cynical tendencies—which researchers equated with a tendency to mistrust other people—were three times more likely to develop dementia than non-cynics were. This was after controlling for other factors that could trigger dementia, such as high blood pressure.

When I read this study (summarized here), it occurred to me that the “cynical” people in the study weren’t Cynics in the classical sense of the word. The individuals who scored high on the “cynicism” test can better be described as anti-social curmudgeons.

The classical Cynics—including my favorite, Diogenes of Sinope—were endearingly eccentric individuals who seem to have had many friends. What they distrusted was not people but pleasure. Because of this distrust, the Cynics lived an ascetic lifestyle. Their strategy for “dealing with” pleasure was to avoid pleasant things. Despite their asceticism, though, they retained their sense of humor.

Early in his life, Diogenes and his father had been exiled from Sinope, in modern Turkey, because either he or his banker father had adulterated the coinage there. When someone later brought up this incident in an attempt to shame Diogenes, he responded that yes, it was true that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, but added that he in turn had sentenced them to remain in Sinope.

On another occasion, Diogenes was enjoying a sunbath—one of the few pleasures a Cynic would allow himself—when Alexander the Great walked up and asked whether Diogenes wanted anything, the suggestion being that Alexander had it in his power to grant any wish. Diogenes replied that yes, there was something Alexander could do: stop blocking the sun so Diogenes could continue his sunbath. Alexander was impressed by this response. Indeed, he is reported later to have said that if he couldn’t be Alexander the Great, he would want to be Diogenes.

The Stoics have Cynicism in their bloodlines. The original Stoic, Zeno of Citium, had been a student of Crates the Cynic. Zeno soon drew the conclusion, though, that humans are not well-suited to asceticism. He therefore softened their doctrines in his development of Stoicism.   He agreed with the Cynics that we should distrust pleasure. Where he disagreed was in how we should deal with it. Our goal, said Zeno, should not be to avoid pleasure altogether but, while enjoying pleasant things, to take steps to avoid being enslaved by them.

Neither the Cynics nor the Stoics were antisocial, in the manner that the curmudgeons in the above-described survey were. In particular, the Stoics fully admitted that people need the company of other people in order to be happy and that people benefit from friendship. They also realized that other people are the principal source of irritation in daily living. With this in mind, the Stoics devised strategies for preventing other people from disrupting their tranquility.

One strategy was to immunize themselves against the insults, both blatant and subtle, that other people directed their way. As part of this strategy, the Stoics advocated insult pacifism: when insulted, we should act as if nothing had happened. And if we feel that we must say something in response, self-deprecating humor was our best bet. (I describe insult pacifism in greater detail here.)

It isn’t clear whether the above study proves that being an anti-social curmudgeon will increase our chance of developing dementia. One thing that would have been clear to both the Cynics and Stoics of the ancient world, though, is that being an anti-social curmudgeon would vastly increase our chance of having a miserable existence.

A 21st century Stoic will seek the company of other people. Yes, they will irritate him from time to time, but steps can be taken to keep this irritation to a minimum. And what irritation remains, he will remind himself, is a small price to pay for the joys of human companionship.

#4: Are You a Born Stoic?

In my Guide to the Good Life, I describe what I call congenital Stoics. These are individuals who, on reading my book or reading the works of the ancient Stoics, discover that they are already practicing Stoicism; they just didn’t realize it. I myself seem to have been a congenital Stoic.

This raises the question of how they came to be Stoics. Did they learn Stoicism from other people, reinvent Stoicism by analyzing human behavior, or were they simply born with Stoic wiring? My initial assumption was that most congenital Stoics had arrived at their Stoicism through a combination of the first two of these approaches: they examined the behavior of the happy individuals they knew, figured out what they were doing right, and started imitating them. This, I think, is what I had done. But on watching the people around me, I also became convinced that there are people who seem to be congenitally un-Stoical. Allow me to explain.

A Stoic, congenital or otherwise, will regard anxiety as a bad thing. He will therefore, in accordance with Epictetus’s advice, refuse to worry about things he can’t control. He will instead focus his attention on the things he can control and will control them to the extent possible. Among these things are his goals and his character.

A Stoic will “deal with” the things he can’t control not by worrying about them but by engaging in what I call negative visualization: he will spend time contemplating the bad things that can happen to him. He might, for example, allow himself to have a flickering thought about how much worse his life would be if he lost a loved one or friend. But he will not spend time worrying about these things, since that would be a pointless waste of time, and as the Stoic Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”

There is a very important difference between contemplating an unfortunate event and worrying about or, even worse, dreading that event. A Stoic will routinely contemplate his own death, but it is an event that he will neither worry about nor dread.

One of the most profound Stoic discoveries was the realization that contemplating the bad things that can happen to us can make us appreciate the things we have. By doing this, it can transform us into individuals who are delighted to be alive. By way of contrast, spending our time worrying about the bad things that can happen to us is a recipe for a miserable existence.

Recent psychological research indicates that some people find it easier to engage in negative visualization—and more generally, to feel optimistic about their life and circumstances—than other people do. This is apparently because of the way their brains are wired.

In that study, summarized here, psychologists first tested 71 women to see whether they tended to think positively or negatively. They were then shown graphic images, such as a knife being held to a woman’s throat, while their brain activity was monitored. They were asked to imagine a positive outcome to the scene shown—that the woman, for example, broke away from the assailant. According to lead investigator Jason Moser, “The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions. This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

From this research, Moser doesn’t draw the conclusion that it is impossible for such individuals to become positive thinkers. He does suggest, though, that it will take more time and energy to achieve what, to many Stoics, comes naturally.

Does this mean that Stoicism isn’t for everyone? Not at all. It means that some people will find it easier to adopt the philosophy than others will. For some people—including, presumably, most congenital Stoics—following the advice of the ancient Stoics will be easy. For other people, it will require conscious effort, and there will be a tendency to backslide. From this, of course, it does not follow that the effort should not be invested.

That said, there are people for whom Stoicism clearly won’t work. Consider a woman who, because she is mentally ill, spends her days gripped with anxiety. The application of Stoicism requires rational capacity which, in a mentally ill person, will be compromised. Consequently, what this woman needs isn’t philosophy but medication.