I’m taking a brief break from my Black Cauldron analysis and series, instead sticking out another entry in my Life Hacks posts. Why? Because another election is coming up, that’s why. This will also be broken into bits, for stoicism has many parts that can be helpful to us in our world.
We’re facing a huge problem in today’s world. It’s not Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, Anarchists, or any other political group. It’s also not a problem of white men, white women, black men, black women, illegal immigrants, lawful immigrants, homosexuals, or any other identity.
The problem is all of us, a sick society as a whole because we’ve forgotten how to deal with others in a civil manner. This is especially true around elections, even non-Presidential elections, which were never even a big deal until everyone in America suddenly developed strong political opinions and began to regard everyone who didn’t hold those same ideals as literal Nazis.
For all our strides towards a better world, we’ve forgotten how to be civil. We’ve forgotten that human thoughts aren’t streamlined — we aren’t the products of Henry Ford’s assembly line, rather the ever-changing and cumulative product of a combination of our genetic input, our environment, and our experiences. The latter two things especially form our subconscious mind, informing our involuntary reactions to what we see, hear, smell, and more.
We prefer our stories to be filled with multifaceted characters: sympathetic villains, flawed heroes, or the muddy gray area that all of us ultimately fall into. We don’t like the black and white world of the past where every villain gloats about their evil deeds and heroes, for no other reason than being heroic, fight said evildoers.
No, in today’s world we enjoy something more akin to Game of Thrones, in which few characters really fall into neat little boxes. The characters who are the worst offenders are still capable of doing incredibly good deeds and vice versa.
Yet in reality, we prefer to put people into neat little boxes. We hold everyone to our own standards of what we feel is the correct way to think and act, demonizing anyone who doesn’t live up to, or, worse, actually disagrees with our worldview.
Last time in Life Hacks we looked at Epicurus and his method of finding satisfaction and tranquility in life. Unfortunately, Epicurus largely advocated a withdrawal from society and politics, so he can’t help us here, unless you just swear off the wider world altogether. While Epicureanism teaches us to prioritize our life to maximize pleasure and diminish pain, we are left wondering what to do in regards to our treatment of others?
Today, we’ll be looking at the Stoics — some of the most influential people regarding Greek thought.
Some Mandatory Notes on the Stoics
Before I get into the practical Stoic recipe for life, I’d like to take the time to explain the worldview of the Stoics.
The Stoics were kind of the originators of the Intelligent Design theory. That’s not to say they didn’t believe in the Olympians and various other Greek deities, but they felt that the gods, as well as humans, animals, and all life stemmed from a single, central intelligence, which they called Nature.
Nature is a living ecosystem with intelligence. After all, the universe and all life follows certain rules, informing Stoic philosophy that Nature is logical.
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.
— Marcus Aurelius
This pantheistic theology is very similar to Jainism and Hinduism, and also a bit similar to Taoism. God is not a being that resides outside of the universe and creates it, he/she/it resides in all of the universe. All life is merely a branch, or an organ, of Nature, and each species plays its role accordingly.
Because of this, Stoics believe that humans are meant to live and work together,
The human soul can be divided into two parts: the lower soul and the higher soul.
The lower soul is our life force, or the vital energy we need to survive. It governs our perception, movement, metabolism, reproduction, ability to heal, etc.
The higher soul is the intellect, or the bit of us that is divine. After all, Nature (or Logos) is logical and intellectual, hence our own thoughts have a spark of divinity in them.
Every person’s mind is god, and is an emanation thence.
Because tranquility and pleasure is found in the mind, not the body, the Stoics viewed the mind as a kind of acropolis, which should be kept free from troublesome invaders. This isn’t to say that the Stoics advocated narrow-mindedness, just that with the following steps they managed to keep themselves from being too stressed out.
For the purposes of keeping this article short, thereby accommodating the trend towards universal shorter attention spans, we’ll just focus on step 1 today. It’ll end with an exercise that should be performed at least once per week.
Step 1: Suspending Judgment
What troubles people is not things, but their judgment about things.
To clarify before we begin, this isn’t the same as apathy. What this step is about is suspending your judgment so that you can make a more reasoned one later. It helps you to realize what’s in your control and what’s outside it so you can stop worrying about the uncertain.
I’m going to substitute the Stoic concept of the lower soul for our modern day understanding of the subconscious mind. Both are connected to the body and immediate surroundings, and both are informed and developed by our experiences and the dispositions they create.
The subconsciousness is the first step in our cognitive process whenever something happens. When we stroke our pets, for example, both us and the animals feel pleasure. This is an unconscious process informed by physical sensation. We don’t have to think to ourselves, “This feels good,” in order to make it so. In that same vein, we involuntarily snap our hand back if we touch something hot without having to consciously tell ourselves that such an action is appropriate in order to avoid a terrible injury.
Our subconscious also forms our immediate judgments, and this is something unavoidable. It’s a necessary bit of survival that all creatures possess to keep out of harm’s way. These judgments are formed by our genetic code, our experiences, and the things we’ve been taught. Changing them is very difficult and can be very dangerous. As many martial arts and self-defense instructors out there will tell you, don’t ignore your gut instincts.
However, our subconscious isn’t constantly making these life or death reactions. Most of the time, we are allowed to experience the initial reaction and then still have time to make conscious judgments. Conscious judgments, of course, are our higher souls, according to Stoics.
The goal here is to not attach a habitual judgment to a subconscious impression, but to practice withholding judgment until a reasoned one can be attached. Specifically, we are to withhold making judgments with subjective value. Instead, we make objective judgments first.
See an object or event in its naked reality.
Look at a basic hamburger, for example. It’s the muscle of a dead cow that’s been burned and placed on a bun, which is flour fermented by yeast, or bacteria that eats sugar and releases carbon dioxide.
Is that appetizing? Probably not, but the idea is to create an objective description, not the description a restaurant would tell you!
On that note, say you’re driving down an icy road. You come to a crossroads and another vehicle pulls out in front of you. Your immediate actions and feelings stem from your subconscious, as its job is to keep you alive. You slam on the breaks, maybe you swerve, and then you feel relief and anger.
Before you honk your horn and shout at the driver, suspend your judgment. What just happened? A car slid out in front of you on the ice. You didn’t collide with the other vehicle or anything else, both of you being able to walk away from the incident without harm. Do you allow anger now to trouble the acropolis of your mind?
Instead of playing a game in your inner monologue of what could have happened if you’d hit the other car, simply recognize that these are uncertainties and shouldn’t bother you so much.
Whether you see people protesting against something you support, people screaming in others’ faces, etc., let these things not trouble you. Just smile and walk away. The fact of the matter is that there are people on the streets with signs and raised voices. That is the objective, naked description of such actions. To focus on that is to learn to control your inner dialogue.
An Exercise of Suspension
An exercise you can do to quell this inner dialogue is to perform a stoic meditation. Find a place where you can sit, undisturbed, for the duration of this exercise. You don’t have to assume a special posture unless it puts you in the zone, nor do you have to be in a special place, unless, again, it helps you get into the zone. I, personally, like to spend the few warm months afforded to those of us residing in Minnesota outside, cross-legged beneath some trees.
Think of negative things that are not in your control, such as the drama on social media, the news, the President or any other political figures, your best friend making what you think are dumb decisions, etc. Judge them as indifferent, pushing them aside.
Next think of the positive things that are not in your control, such as a wedding you’ve been invited to, a major victory at work, etc. Judge them as indifferent and push them aside as well.
Sit fully within yourself for as long as you can. You are living in the here and now, free from all the strings that give others (people, things, events, etc.) power over your emotions. Do this for as long as you are able.
That’s the end of this stoic lesson. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll get around to the next one soon.