Stoicism: Can we stop the endless emoting and give the ancient philosophy a try in 2021?

The grievance and rage driving everything from erasing Abraham Lincoln to cancelling everyone we disagree with is unhealthy, but there is a better way to live your life and it’s certainly not toxic

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that has unfortunately fallen out of favor in recent years.  Oxford Languages defines the term simply as “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.”  In the modern world, most people probably hear the word “philosophy” and think of pipe smoking professors in twill jackets, endlessly debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Stoicism, however, has always been different.

Founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early third century BC, stoics believed that virtue was the highest good, the wisest among us live in harmony with reason and natural law, and we should strive to be indifferent to the comings and goings of fortune, pleasure, and pain.

Over the centuries, figures as varied as Frederick the Great, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Theodore Roosevelt, General James Mattis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Tom Brady have embraced parts of the philosophy.

Stoics strive to live their lives based on four key principles: Courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom.  Moreover, stoicism is conceived as an active philosophy:  The focus was not on what a person said, but rather what they actually did.  The goal was to find a way of living that maximizes happiness and reduces negative emotions.

In other words, they understood what we seem to have forgotten in our emotion-drenched and rage-obsessed age:  Your actions influence your emotions.  If you allow yourself to be driven by Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” you will become consumed by discontent and that will have a negative impact on your behavior.  If you maintain discipline in the face of disaster, however, you will overcome any challenges and exhibit more positive behaviors.

One of the most influential stoic philosophers was Marcus Aeurelius, the unlikely emperor of Rome from 161-180 AD, the last of what are considered The Five Good Emperors.  “Alone of the emperors,” the historian Herodian wrote, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”

Somehow, Marcus Aeurelius found the time to quite literally write the book on stoicism, Meditations.

In it, he laid out key tenets of this active philosophy.  To call the work quotable, is an understatement.  A few selections help sum up his approach to the world and the stoic philosophy in general:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

That last quote illustrates one of the key differences between our current worldview and stoic philosophy:  Today, we are almost endlessly obsessed with debating what it means to be good, virtuous, or woke.  Amazingly, we even apply these standards to figures that lived hundreds of years ago, expecting their world view to conform to ours, and judging them based on whether or not they live up to our ideals, rather than their actions and their impact on the world.

For example, Abraham Lincoln was, until very recently, almost universally considered to be one of the greatest figures in American history, if not world history.  In addition to leading the Union war effort and saving the United States, he freed the slaves and set in place policies to encourage racial harmony.

His positive impact on the world is almost incalculable, and yet that is no longer enough in today’s culture.

Right now, a San Francisco school district is planning to rename a school because Lincoln didn’t demonstrate that “black lives mattered to him” and he continued policies harmful to indigenous peoples. 

Jeremiah Jeffries, a chairman of the renaming committee, told the San Francisco Chronicle that, “’Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building.”

By all contemporary accounts, however, Lincoln was far, far more progressive than the great majority of his contemporaries.  In 1854 in Peoria, Illinois, he said, “My ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”

Frederick Douglass, a black man and leading abolitionist in Lincoln’s day, asserted that Lincoln “was emphatically the black man’s President: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”  In the same speech delivered on the 79th Anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Douglass also said, “I caught a glimpse of the soul of this great man, a remarkable glimpse, a deep insight into his mind and heart.”

If black, abolitionist contemporaries believed Lincoln to be a great man and the black man’s president, why cannot that not be enough for the likes of Jeremiah Jeffries?

Lest you think they’re just picking on Lincoln, George Washington, another indispensable man considered a hero to all the world is also on that list, as is Thomas Edison and even Dianne Feinstein.

Of course, these men weren’t perfect.  No one one is.  If that is your standard, then, to paraphrase Shakespeare again:  No one will escape a whipping.  Everyone instinctively knows this, and yet San Francisco plans to change the names of 44 out of 125 schools.

What’s really happening here is an inversion of the stoic principles:  Jeremiah Jeffries and people like him are consumed by unhealthy emotions, primarily over exaggerated feelings of grievance.  Ultimately, they refuse to reject their sense of injury, even over events that occured close to two hundred years ago, and the injury itself festers.  This has caused them to lose the ability to objectively evaluate even the best and brightest among us.

The real question to ask when considering historical figures is simple:  Is the world better off for having Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or Thomas Edison?  Whatever their flaws, the answer in each case is a resounding yes.  In their own ways, they contributed more to the human experience than 99.9999% of people who have ever lived.

The abandonment of stoicism presents itself in other, more insidious ways as well.  The term “toxic masculinity” has entered common parlance over the past few years.  Originally, it referred to obviously negative traits such as aggression, glorification of violence, and sexism, but since then it has expanded to include positive traits such as strength and self-sufficiency.

According to Medical News Today, “In modern society, people often use the term toxic masculinity to describe exaggerated masculine traits that many cultures have widely accepted or glorified.  This harmful concept of masculinity also places significant importance on ‘manliness’ based on: strength, lack of emotion, self-sufficiency, dominance, sexual virility.  According to traditional toxic masculine values, a male who does not display enough of these traits may fall short of being a ‘real man.’”

The problem, of course, is that none of those traits are either positive or negative except in their usage.  Strength is good when defending the weak, bad when you are a bully.  A lack of emotion can be helpful when objectively evaluating a situation, comforting a loved one without making it about yourself, or supporting your family during a difficult period.  Self-sufficiency, I have no idea how that is even bad, but even dominance can be good at times, if for example you’re taking on the bully.  Sexual virility is, of course, neither here nor there, pulling from Shakespeare one more time:  The world must be peopled.

And, yet, these behaviors, many of which including strength, lack of emotion, and self-sufficiency would traditionally be considered stoic, are now labelled toxic.   The opposite is surely true. It is good to be strong in the face of challenges, to control your emotions when they could be harmful to others, and to be self-sufficient so the truly needy can be better served.

By almost every measure, 2020 has been a challenging year, from a once-in-a-generation pandemic, to an economic collapse, to a polarizing election.  In all of these cases, it is incredibly easy to emote.  The average citizen can do so on social media, the politicians in the halls of power, and the media on the TV screen.  The emotions are raw and certainly real.  Everyone has strong feelings about everything, from fear over the uncertainty, to rage at your perceived opponents, to grief at the loss.

To all of it, I say:  So what?  Who cares?

Everyone knows it’s been a horrible, no good, very bad, terrible, awful, etc. year, but further venting will not make it any better.  It will not improve the situation by even the slightest bit. Instead, you will carry it with you and it will affect your behavior, your relationships, and the rest of your life.

There is another option: You can simply choose to persevere in steady, calming silence.  Be the rock for your family and your friends by accomplishing the daily grind of carrying on, hoping each day it gets a little better than the one before because it will if we make it so.

As Marcus Aeurelius wrote, “Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’

I hope that is something we can all remember in 2021. I doubt it, but I hope.

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