Tag Archives: Stoicism

#11: The Stoic 2-Step Program for Better Living

Many blog postings consist of tips on how to improve aspects of your life—how to avoid procrastinating, perhaps, or how to lose ten pounds.  These tips are known as life hacks.

Rather than spending their time thinking about how to improve aspects of their life, the Stoics were interested in figuring out how to improve their life itself.  To this end, they came up with the following two-step program:

      Step #1: Figure out what in life is worth having.

      Step #2: Devise an effective strategy for attaining that thing.

As it turns out, Stoicism isn’t alone in advocating this two-step program; any coherent philosophy for living will.  Where philosophies differ is in the conclusions they reach in Steps #1 and #2.

The Stoics concluded that tranquility (by which they mean the absence of negative emotions; they have nothing against positive emotions such as joy) is the thing in life most worth having.  And Stoicism, it turns out, isn’t the only philosophy that identifies tranquility as the thing in life most worth having; so do such diverse philosophies as Zen Buddhism and Epicureanism.  Where these philosophies differ is in their strategy for attaining this goal.  They differ, in other words, in the conclusions they reach in Step #2.

In my Guide to the Good Life, I describe the Stoic strategy for attaining and then maintaining tranquility. Stoics recommend, for example, that we practice negative visualization: we should allow ourselves to have flickering thoughts about how our life could be worse.  A Zen Buddhist, by way of contrast, might recommend that we practice the strategy known as zazen: we should try to empty our minds of all thoughts so we can gain insight into the insidious nature of desire and thereby gain mastery over it.

Not all philosophies for living identify tranquility as the thing in life most worth having.  Consider, for example, “enlightened hedonists.”  They identify pleasure as the thing in life most worth having and go on to devise strategies for maximizing the pleasure they experience in the course of their lifetime.

Although philosophers will disagree about what philosophy of life people should adopt, they will be in general agreement that everyone ought to adopt some philosophy for living—that you are better off with even a flawed philosophy for living than with no philosophy at all.

People who lack a philosophy for living will, after all, make very little progress in life.  One day they will try to achieve one goal, and the next they will abandon it in favor of some other goal.   They will be like a ship captain who randomly changes his course every hour.  He is unlikely ever to reach land. He will instead spend his life literally at sea, which is the metaphorical fate of anyone who tries to go through life without a philosophy for living.

This is why it is important for you, whatever your age and your station in life may be, to spend time and energy choosing a philosophy for living—and to spend that time now, so that you can benefit from your philosophy in the days of life remaining to you.  Wouldn’t it be tragic if, on your deathbed, you finally figured out the point to living?

Many blog readers are in search of life hacks.  The Stoics, however, would recommend that instead of hacking your way through life, you philosophize.  More precisely, you should search for a coherent philosophy for living.  Yes, doing so will cost you time and effort, but not as much as you might think.  And yes, adopting a philosophy for living will require you to make adjustments in the way you spend your days.  But the price will be well worth paying, if what you seek is a happy and meaningful life.

#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.