As the popularity of Stoicism has grown it’s begun to reveal its truths slowly to the public. Unfortunately, misconceptions of Stoicism since the time of its founding to now are beginning to grow as well. Some people have this misconception that Stoicism is about being tough and having a stiff upper lip (this is now being rightly characterized as “stoicism-lowercase-s” among experts in the Stoic community). I thought I’d write why Stoicism is better than stoicism-lower-case-s.
1. Stoicism is a robust philosophy that emphasizes getting to know one’s passions and learning to heal the negative passions that can cause us to be irrational. Lowercase stoicism is not a philosophy but just an attitude people express when they’re doing unhealthy things like repressing their emotions.
2. Stoicism involves having courage, which means doing the right thing despite having fear. Lowercase stoicism involves an unhealthy form of courage, usually bravado, which involves denying that one has fear.
3. Stoicism involves developing compassion and conquering one’s anger/hatred. Lowercase stoicism involves a stunted development of compassion and concealing one’s anger/hatred.
4. Stoicism is about being your brother’s keeper and loving everyone and seeing everyone regardless of race, creed, and gender as a brother and a sister. Lowercase stoics usually complain about people being too compassionate and how they should just be indifferent to the daily injustices in the world.
5. Stoicism is about achieving eudiamonia through virtue which means a state of apatheia, which means freedom from negative passion. Lowercase stoicism misunderstands this point and thinks that individuals should be apathetic to the concerns of others and remain unengaged in society and politics.
Most people understand that you don’t want to be angry most of the time. Aristotle agrees but he thinks we should sometimes show show anger as long as it’s the right amount of anger at the right time at the right person in the right situation for the right reason. The Stoics disagree. But why?
The reason is largely that anger usually relies on the judgment that externals are bad, which is a misjudgment since externals are neither good nor bad. But here’s a tough question: what about people? Aren’t people either good or bad according to Stoicism? Well, we need to have the proper judgments about people as well. But wouldn’t judging someone as a bad person make us mad? No, because we know that someone who is bad is just ignorant and misguided. If the bad person knew that the virtuous life led to eudaimonia and had that wisdom to guide them, they would no longer be bad because being bad never pays. If being bad never pays, then obviously people only do bad things out of ignorance.
What about people who suffer from injustices? Well, that’s a situation that is bad but even then it doesn’t call for anger but for action. Yes, it’s understandable that people get angry at injustice but the Stoic knows that even anger as a proto-passion needn’t turn into an anger passion. The Stoic knows that anger is a temporary form of madness and that it interferes with objective thought processes. So the Stoic may feel anger at first but will let it pass. Continuing to be angry after the initial anger at injustice is no longer necessary as it’s time to develop an action plan to help put an end to injustice.
So in conclusion I’d like to say most situations that piss people off aren’t even bad. They’re just dispreferred indifferents. And the situations (like an injustice) that do piss people off because they’re bad aren’t even reasons enough to stay mad but to act and plan and to act and plan. So just remember if you start letting yourself get angry after an initial injury, just quickly let the anger blow over and carry on. Don’t feed the anger, just let it pass.
Stoicism has become fairly popular as a philosophy. When you compare it to other philosophy schools on Facebook, Stoicism Facebook groups’s membership greatly outnumber other philosophical schools’s membership like Kantianism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Schopenhauereanism, for example. Unfortunately with large numbers in any group comes with members who have large misconceptions.
One major misconception of Stoicism is that it is about being apathetic and apolitical. If you’ve read Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, you’d know that Stoicism isn’t about being apathetic. Some individuals are attracted to the Stoic groups because they see themselves as placated with careless apathy and think Stoicism is all about careless apathy. But they couldn’t be anymore wrong! Stoicism isn’t about not giving a care, it’s about decreasing negative passions such as anger and sorrow, as a few examples. When Stoicism talks about apatheia, it’s meaning that you’re free of negative passions. But in place of the negative passion, it substitutes positive passions such as compassion and joy.
People misread the view that judgments should consider externals as indifferent as “judgments should consider externals as completely valueless.” To Stoics indifferents are very important, they just don’t matter to our eudaimonia (the good life). Some also misread indifferents as meaning we shouldn’t care about people either because they’re external to us. But they forget that one of the virtues of Stoicism is justice. Justice usually includes piety, fair dealings, being equitable, and compassion.
One thing that annoys the people who misunderstand Stoicism the most is when someone in the group posts something political related to Stoicism. The people who misunderstand Stoicism complain that political posts are not “Stoic.” Little to do they know that Stoicism is very political. It’s difficult to decipher exactly what you should believe politically on any particular issue via Stoicism but Stoicism does stress the importance of being involved politically. So all Stoics ought to be prepared to justify their political positions as Stoically or rationally as possible.
In conclusion, Stoicism may want you to achieve apatheia (freedom from negative passions) but it doesn’t want you to achieve apathy. If you want apathy, you’re not really going to find a very developed school of philosophy for that.
Sometimes life can take a turn for the worst. Let’s say all these scenarios happen: You lose your close family in an accident, your friends stab you in the back, you fall into a fire and melt your beautiful face, and you suffer from intense chronic pain throughout your body coupled with drug and therapy resistant depression. If such a situation was to occur and you couldn’t bear the thought of living anymore, would it be acceptable if you wanted to take your life? Would taking your life be forfeiting a virtuous life?
The Stoics didn’t believe taking your life would necessarily forfeit virtue. If they saw your situation so dire and you had such crippling depression and intense chronic pain, they’d understand if you took the path of euthanasia. Largely because chronic pain and crippling depression coupled with all these ill circumstances is going to make it difficult for you to be virtuous. And without virtue, then there is no eudaimonia. There is no praiseworthiness. So the only thing virtuous left to do would be to take your life.
Zeno of Citium famously took his life because he broke his toe. This may seem ridiculous to us moderns but a broken toe in the ancient days for an old man could’ve been difficult to treat. Plus the pain associated with the broken toe would’ve made it difficult to live a life of virtue and excellence.
Another thing to bear in mind is that we’re only human. None of us are Sages. Remember that before judging anyone too harshly when they decide on euthanasia.
Sometimes there’s a debate over whether pleasure is a preferred or merely an absolute indifferent.
I think pleasure is a preferred indifferent, largely because pleasure is important for your body to function well and perform well in order to help you carry out virtue. It’s important to please oneself and take pleasure in others’ pleasure.
If pleasure was an absolute indifferent, you could biologically function completely fine without it. Your body would be in perfect health. But living a life in pain or lack of pleasures takes it toll on anyone’s health.
It’s really important to find pleasure in a joke and laugh because this helps increase endorphins and endorphins are necessary for bodily health. Not only that but they do affect the brain, which will affect the mind.
Sure, a Stoic will learn with practice to live without preferred indifferents but even though they may still live a life of eudaimonia, the lack of health, pleasure, wealth, reputation will inevitably take toll on their existence and they’ll slowly waste away.
Preferred indifferents are for our bodily existence. Virtue is for our eudaimonic existence. It’s true that virtue is the only good but it will be difficult to practice virtue without taking care of our bodily needs. It’s not that bodily needs are good, they’re just a requisite means to the end of pursuing virtue, which is the ultimate importance for living a eudamonic life.
So enjoy pleasure. You should enjoy it. Just don’t let it steal virtue away from you.