Since nearly its inception, around 300 BCE in ancient Greece, Stoicism has had a mistaken reputation for promoting a robot-like, unemotional attitude. But the goal of Stoicism isn’t to eliminate emotions so much as bad responses to emotions.
There is an old story that illustrates the point. Aulus Gellius, a Roman author, was traveling on a ship with a reputed Stoic philosopher when they met a strong storm. As the waves crashed over them, Aulus looked over at the philosopher to see how he was responding. To his surprise, the Stoic man was just as afraid as the rest of the crew.
The storm passed and afterward, Aulus asked the philosopher why he responded as he did. In reply, the man took out a copy of the Discourses by the famed Stoic philosopher Epictetus (50–135 CE). He then pointed to a passage, which explained that the impressions we receive from our environment are not under our control. We only have the power to assent to those impressions or not (NA 19.1.1–21).
The fear that we feel when a wave is about to crash over us, in other words, is natural and not up to us. A Stoic philosopher will experience it just like any other person. What is under our control is whether to give in to that initial impression, to let it become terror for example, or not.
What Stoic philosophy specializes in is supplying techniques, or “spiritual exercises,” to help us deal with such strong emotions to stay calm. In fact, in a single chapter of his Discourses, Epictetus explains that there are five such exercises to help you achieve a tranquil, happy life.
Philosophically, I am going to forward the view that there is a logical organization at work in Epictetus’ chapter — he wasn’t writing a “listicle.”
Practically, I want to explain these ideas in a way that you can use them yourself. A point of context proves helpful to start, one relayed best by a story.
What Exactly Is a Spiritual Exercise?
When I teach in a classroom, my university students are regularly treated to my abilities as an artist. Those abilities extend from drawing oblong circles, to crooked lines, to wobbly stick figures.
To help me draw better, an art student once showed me that if I took an image and turned it upside down, I would do better at copying it. She had me try it and indeed I was better. But I still wasn’t what anyone would call “good.”
This point illustrates the basic Stoic idea about life: living a good life is an “art” in the classical sense, meaning that it is a craft (Latin: ars, Greek: technē).
When you’re learning a craft, like drawing, someone can explain the intellectual points to you, like turning an image upside down, but you still need to practice it to get better. The one without the other is mostly a waste of everyone’s time.
The Stoics thus developed a host of practices (Greek: askēsis) that aren’t physical so much as mental. Pierre Hadot, a French scholar of classical antiquity, decided to translate the Greek term askēsis as “spiritual exercise” to express this point. In French “esprit” means both “mind” and “spirit,” so the idea is that these are exercises for your mind rather than your body.
The Stoic’s view, then, holds that to live well you need spiritual exercise. What follows are “spiritual exercises” in this sense.
1 What To Do When Things Go Wrong
In his chapter on what value we should place on outcomes, Epictetus begins by considering the commonest source of our worries, namely whether something we hope will happen — an election result for example — will in fact happen. He writes:
“What am I going to do?” “How will I do it?” “How will it turn out?” “I am afraid that this [bad thing] will befall me or that!” All these are the expressions of people who concern themselves with the things that lie outside the sphere of moral purpose (Discourses IV.10).
When Epictetus mentions “moral purpose,” he means those things that have value for your life as a human being. What makes you good as a human is how you respond to events, whether you maintain that upstanding, good individual within.
Whether or not your favored candidate wins the election, your character isn’t at stake.
Whether or not that person you like also likes you back doesn’t change who you are.
Whether or not you are promoted, your moral character is untouched.
Whether or not you are laid off, your moral character is up to you.
Whether or not you become a parent, who you are is not at risk.
Of course, your circumstances will change, but the heart of Stoic ethics holds that the measure of a person’s life — its value — doesn’t change by those circumstances.
Good people are good people whether they are rich or poor, employed or unemployed, live in a democracy or a tyranny.
Likewise, the bad aren’t made better by owning Lamborghinis and dressing in luxury attire.
How to Apply This
To apply this lesson, you only have to ask: is this under my control? If it is, then take the appropriate steps to correct the situation. If it isn’t, then give it up to “god.”
If you believe in some divine being, then give it up to them. If you don’t, as the Stoics believed that god was the soul of the cosmos, then you can put your worries off on that.
It is this line of reasoning that inspired what is known as the Serenity Prayer, usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
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.
2 What To Do When Goals Unravel
Epictetus continues beyond this first point. Bad events are easily separated from whom we are. But what do you do when your goals unravel? He replies:
If a person has great anxiety about some desire, for fear that it will turn out incomplete and miss its mark…. [D]esire none of those things which are not your own, and avoid none of those things that are not under your control (Discourses IV. 10).
His point is that your goals can only unravel if you have chosen objectives that are not your own, that are not under your control.
Here are some examples.
- You publish an article that gets only 30 views.
- You write a book that flops.
- You apply to a job and are rejected.
- You ask out your crush and strikeout.
- You try out for a team and you are cut (I discuss my own experience here).
The problem in each case is that you desire what you can’t control. Do those things make you better or worse as a person? That is Epictetus’ point.
Also, remember that even beyond living a good life, mere happiness doesn’t consist in getting things. Even if you do achieve your goals, we each face what social scientists call a “hedonic treadmill.” The idea is simple: our brains adapt to things. Just like getting into a hot tub, the waters of life only feel hot for a while.
Get a new car … and soon it becomes old. Buy a new house … and shortly it’s just where you live. Upgrade your phone … and in six months a new model comes out.
How to Apply This
When you are facing a setback like this, you need to pause your thoughts and reconsider your goals. Ask yourself: Are these goals under my control? If not, why did I want them in the first place?
You’ll probably find that the sources at work turn on what you are ashamed of and your fear of vulnerability.
Another way to approach this task is to think about your life after the event in more detail. How is it different? In what ways, very concretely, would it be better? If it matters a great deal, ask other people who have been there.
The reason you have to do this is that social scientists have found that we’re often terrible at imagining the future because we either leave stuff out that should be there or put stuff in that won’t be.
For example, imagine that you win a free car. It’s your choice, pick whichever one you want. Imagine its color, its feel while driving it, everything about it. Now, what was your license plate number? … or did you forget to put that in?
Often what’s making you feel bad about an outcome is a result of not understanding what achieving that goal would be like in the first place.
But what if it’s something I’ve been trying to accomplish my whole life?
3 What to Do About Life-Long Commitments
Epictetus continues his discussion with just this point, writing:
Did not Homer compose his works for us to see that there is nothing to prevent the persons of highest birth, of greatest strength, of most handsome appearance, from being the most miserable and wretched — if they do not hold the right kind of judgements? (Discourses IV.10)
Yes, what is true of one-off projects is true of your life-projects also. But even if your projects go well, you can only live well if you hold the right kind of judgments. Let me give you a story.
Pete Best is the most famous musician you have almost heard of. He was the drummer in a small band called The Beatles. But at one point, the other members of the band decided to replace him with Ringo Star, and like that, Pete Best became almost famous.
When asked about his experiences, however, Pete said that he is happy with his life — that he is better in every way. And he continues to make his own music. His secret?
He has the right kinds of judgments about what living a good human life is. Most of us don’t become rock stars and many of those who do, don’t live well anyway.
How to Apply This
When a major setback like this happens, you need to stop and ask: How is your life still a good human life? Often you’ll find that the source of your anxiety and depression is a series of comparative judgments. You think:
Person P has Y thing, and I’m just as good as P, so I should have Y thing too!
But why is having that thing important for living a good human life in the first place?
One way I’ve found out of this predicament is to focus on people who I admire and lived well, but who didn’t have that Y thing. In short, I reverse the line of reasoning:
Person P didn’t have Y thing, and they are just fine. I’m no better than P, so why should my life be worse without Y?
Let me explain with a personal case. One of my life’s aims has been a simple one: to be a father. But it turns out that my wife and I cannot have biological children — frustratingly for reasons that cannot be determined medically. We decided, as a result, to adopt.
What struck me about the whole process is the sense of loss that followed after being denied something I had just assumed would happen naturally. Still, as a philosopher, I know that many of the people I study lived well and had no children at all (biological or adopted).
If their lives weren’t diminished, then why should my life be?
4 What About Death?
You may be lucky, however, and never encounter a serious life-setback. Nevertheless, because you’re human, you stand within the arc of time’s bending sickle. Epictetus next turns to this point asking:
But if I die in so doing? — You will die as a good person, bringing to fulfilment a noble action (Discourses IV.10).
Stoic philosophy perhaps shines brightest in death’s shadow. The key to dying well, they teach, is to know what you are dying for.
I covered James Stockdale’s story in another article. He received the congressional medal of honor for his valor in the Hanoi torture camp, and he saved the lives of many, many men stationed behind enemy lines. He was also a practicing Stoic throughout his adult life.
But in that piece, I didn’t tell the end of his story. The truth is that Stockdale only lived by accident. He realized that under torture he could not hold back information that the enemy knew he knew. And they had learned that he knew more about camp resistance than he was letting on.
If Stockdale divulged what he knew, then the prison guards would kill many of his men and he did not want that to happen. And so the night before they were to torture him, they strung him up in a room and left him there. Stockdale somehow managed to swing to the lone window in the room and break it. Then, with bound hands, he grabbed the shards and slit his wrists. Sometime later the guards found him in a pool of blood and decided to revive him.
The reason? The international community had just learned of the torture camps and North Vietnamese officials did not want the world’s opinion to turn further against them. The last thing they needed, then, was a dead, high-ranking American POW.
Chance stepped in to save Stockdale, but he was prepared to die for his men. He knew what he would be dying for.
How to Apply This
Epictetus tells you explicitly how to apply this lesson, writing:
What is it, then, that you wish to be doing when death finds you? I for my part should wish it to be some work that befits a human, something beneficent, that promotes the common welfare, or is noble. … If death finds me occupied with these matters it is enough (Discourses IV.10).
The point is simple: it is enough to try, earnestly, to help people. Learn to live for others.
5 What About The People We Love?
This last point, though, seems to expose us to the special difficulty of loving other fragile beings. They too, just like us, stand in the arc of time’s sickle. Epictetus addresses this point in discussing the mourning of one man for his friends. He writes:
Why did he regard any of his friends as immortal? (Discourses IV.10)
On this point, Stoicism is often mistaken for coldness. That’s not Epictetus’ point. Rather, he has in mind the same notion that structures the entire chapter: we are human beings with human value.
It is not a happy thought, but of course, our friends and loved ones will pass. That is a fact of human existence. What redeems them, though, is not a long life — not even an infinitely long one. It is rather the value of their actions as human beings.
Death has no value — neither yours nor theirs. And this is a freeing notion, because it means that no one’s life is diminished for having been made shorter.
It is open to us all to live well, even if we cannot all live equally long lives.
How to Apply This
I research all the world’s philosophical traditions because I think that’s the best shot anyone has at learning how to live well. In another piece, I covered the Day of the Dead practices from Mexico. These practices find their historical origin in the ethical philosophy of the Aztecs.
Where I think they help us in applying this Stoic lesson is in the practice of remembering our loved ones and our ancestors. It is one matter to recognize that death does not diminish their life, and another to practice respect for them.
While face painting has become all the rage for social media posts, the heart of Day of the Dead is just to build a small memorial to those who have passed in your home. Then set aside some time to talk about them and to recall what they did that was good in life.
This is one way to actively remember our relationships with others and to express gratitude for what is good in our own lives.
Living The Examined Life
Epictetus forwards logical reasons why there are just five spiritual exercises to remain calm in the storms of life. Each explains why tranquility is a choice, but not an easy one.
In reality, this is just one practice, called “detachment,” which is exercised in five different domains. Like many Stoic terms, detachment can be mistaken for something negative. But like its parallel Buddhist practice, what you are learning to detach from is something harmful.
Those harmful things arise in five areas of life:
- external events,
- individual projects,
- life-long projects,
- facing the end of life,
- supporting our loved ones.
To explain the value of these spiritual exercises, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Epictetus.
You should do this for “calm, then, for peace of mind, for sleeping when you are asleep, and being awake when you are awake, for fearing nothing, for being in great anxiety about nothing” (Discourses IV.10).
Sebastian Purcell’s research specializes in world comparative philosophy, especially as these ancient traditions teach us how to lead happier, richer lives. He lives with his wife, a fellow philosopher, and their three cats in upstate New York.