This article is part of the weekly series ‘In Good Spirits’. New articles will be published every Saturday.
“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable”
You probably worry a lot. And so do I, together with nearly everyone. But what if there would be a way to stop worrying needlessly? What if you could cast aside those haunting thoughts about your work and income, the trouble in your relationships or your anxiety about the future? Are you willing to follow that way, worry less and enjoy more? Then the following words of advice are made for you.
Stoicism: living with Nature
Believe it or not: the way to happiness has been excavated nearly 2000 years ago. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers found a way of life that helped them to cope with trouble and live more happily. These philosophers are known as the Stoics. And just to be clear: captain Spock of the USS Enterprise was not one of them. In fact, Stoics were not the stubborn, grim folk you may hold them to be, but were known to be joyful and content individuals. How did they reach this state of mind? By accepting one simple rule: we should live in accordance with Nature.
Following Nature means acting with reason.
Before reading on, let me explain what ‘Nature’ is. With Nature, I don’t mean the trees and the plants, the flowers, the bees, the birds and the weather. The Stoic concept of Nature is a bit different: it is the entirety of how things are. In the grand scheme of things, the concept of Nature entails the laws of the universe as explained by physics, ontology, and perhaps religion. On a more personal level, it is about following our own human nature, and in particular our capacity for reason. As you follow your Stoic Journey over the course of these articles, you will gain a better understanding of Nature. For now, remember this: following Nature means acting with reason.
Acting with reason
Now think about this: what is the opposite of reason? It is the process of acting on the basis of misleading emotions, passions or feelings. Instead of acting according to our feelings, we must act according to reason, so the Stoics say. This does not mean that emotions are fundamentally evil and should be avoided. It rather means that we should not use them wrongfully as the basis of our actions: we can feel them, but we should not be fooled by them. This is called apatheia. Again, this is not the same as apathy, which means a lack of emotions and is usually considered to be negative. We simply refuse to let false emotions guide us. Instead of being controlled by our emotions like a slave by a master, we make an effort to control them.
“Ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy,
dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy”
At the same time, we would do good to accept the fact that we are only a small part of the universe. We do not have complete control over what happens to us. We can’t stop an earthquake or an economic crisis. But that’s what most philosophies acknowledge. The Stoics carry this argument further: we don’t even have complete control over our body, our property, the amount of money on our bank account or the job that we have. We don’t completely control our reputation or our relationships with others, since there are other people involved, too. Yet we do control one thing: our mind, with its capacity for reason. Is it really bad to have a small shelter instead of a huge villa? Or are we only misled in thinking it is? Is it really bad to have a limp or miss an arm? Or are we only misled in thinking it is? Does it really matter what others think about you if you want to be happy? Or are we misled by our emotions? Stoics argue that all these things don’t really matter, because they do not determine our happiness. A poor, cripple man may be just as happy as a rich and young CEO. A prisoner can find happiness, while his free and successful brother might not find it. Indeed, the external circumstances do not decide if we are happy. This is why the Stoic teacher Epictetus said that a wise man can be “ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy”. We control our mind, and therefore our happiness.
The way ahead
To finish this article, I have two concluding remarks. First, getting in good spirits is not as easy as it may sound now. It is more complex than I can explain in this introduction, and it requires sacrifice to follow it. For instance, Stoics acknowledge that money or power may be helpful in reaching your goals, but they are not an end in themselves. A Stoic will always choose virtue over property, and a will in accordance with nature over the worry of day-to-day business. Only if the two are compatible, you can have wealth, power, or a good reputation.
Secondly, I want to give you an example of the benefits of Stoicism. James B. Stockdale was a military commander of the United States during the Vietnam war. When his aircraft was struck by enemy fire, he was forced to eject it. Consequently, he landed in North Vietnam and was taken as a prisoner of war. As a high-ranking officer, he was imprisoned and tortured for over seven years. He was beaten, whipped and chained. He was kept in solitary confinement and in total darkness, deprived from outside contact and medical care. But he didn’t bend and didn’t break. The North Vietnamese captors got no information from him. Stockdale himself credited Stoicism for his resilience and mental fortitude. This is an example of how Stoics can prosper under any circumstances. Whether you are born as a slave (like Epictetus), crowned as an emperor (like Marcus Aurelius), wealthy as a statesman (like Seneca) or tortured as a prisoner of war, you can be happy. You have it in your control.
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- To worry less and enjoy more, we should live in accordance with Nature.
- Following Nature means acting with reason.
- To act with reason, we should embrace apatheia: don’t let false emotions guide you.
- We lack full control over external things like property and reputation, yet have control over our mind and its capacity for reason. Therefore, we control our happiness
- Getting in good spirits will be rough, but very rewarding.
This is part 1 of the series ‘In Good Spirits’. This is a series of longer posts in which we discover the foundations of Stoicism, so that we may ultimately gain ‘eudaimonia’: a good spirit.