A Stoic experiment
Thomas Murphy | Thursday, March 22, 2018
Stoicism has quite the resume. Once the unofficial philosophy of the Roman Empire, the list of Stoics includes Roman artists, statesmen and even emperors. But over the course of almost two millennia Stoicism has faded from the forefront of philosophy and become a term synonymous with emotionlessness and indifference to the roller coaster of life. The negative connotation of modern Stoicism does the ancient lifestyle a great injustice.
Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium in third century BCE Athens, encourages not an isolation from emotions but an acknowledgement of our lack of control. This acknowledgement, referred to as the Dichotomy of Control, helps us cool our passions by accepting there are many things in life we cannot change. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” neatly sums up the Dichotomy of Control:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Once we understand how our emotions should reflect what we can control, we are able to focus on what really matters: leading a virtuous life. The Stoics expanded on Aristotle’s theory of virtue ethics, arguing that our virtue is indeed the only important aspect of our lives we can control. The Stoics believed that material wealth is nice to have, but it is unsubstantial and temporary. If one is wealthy and can live comfortably, great. If not, they still have virtue. Material wealth is a “preferred indifferent.”
This has been the spark notes of the Stoicism unit in my philosophy seminar this semester. For my seminar’s midterm, I was asked to complete Stoic meditations and exercises three times each day over spring break.
What I learned during this Stoic experiment is that I am a terrible Stoic. Despite my best efforts, I tend to get too excited over events out of my control (thanks a lot, March Madness). One element of Stoicism that I found helpful, however, is a meditation spent focusing on something in your life that gives you anxiety and imagining the worst possible way that something could go. Though it may seem counter-intuititive, thinking about all the ways you could fail helps lower anxiety about the problem at hand.
This exercise was put to the test during the Notre Dame hockey team’s overtime win against Ohio State to claim the Big Ten title on Saturday. I spent a considerable portion of the third period and overtime imagining an Ohio State player skating through Irish defenders, snapping everyone’s ankles and scoring through the Irish five hole. Thinking about how everything could go wrong gave perspective the game’s importance — the world spins regardless of who wins the Big Ten — and made victory much more of a relief.
Though Stoicism in its purest form may not be my calling, I have learned much in my brief encounter with it. Accepting the facts of life, managing situational anxiety and pursuing virtue form a three-step program to a calmer demeanor and better life as prescribed by the ancients and recommended by me.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.