Some Notes on Stoicism

This is not a book review, it’s just some notes I took after finishing the book. 


What’s your philosophy of life? Irvine defines a philosophy of life comprising of two steps, creation of goals and learning techniques to achieve those goals. And stoicism is one such philosophy. The aim of stoicism is the maintenance of tranquility, or reduction/domestication of negative emotions.

I think it’s better to describe stoicism as a technique, like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) rather than a philosophy. Viewed as a technique it can always be modified over time to fit people’s needs. Irvine does a great job of explaining what stoicism is, and synthesizing a pretty nice and easily applicable technique. He draws from works of mainly four stoic philosophers: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. This book shouldn’t be viewed as a history of stoics and stoicism, or exploration of all different views and techniques of stoicism. It is a synthesis, by Irvine, of a practical/applicable technique to help people. In synthesizing a coherent technique, Irvine has to pick and choose certain teachings and dismiss others, because ancient stoics had differing views from each other and some of their own views were contradictory. Also Stoicism is a much bigger philosophy covering everything from theories of physics to theories of knowledge. Here when I refer to stoicism I mean ‘that part of stoicism that deals with humans and their emotions’.

Stoicism shouldn’t be confused with asceticism. Although it was influenced by asceticism and some stoics were ascetic-leaning. Stoicism is about taming and minimization of negative emotions, not denying of worldly pleasures. Also stoicism shouldn’t be viewed as a philosophy preaching complacency. Stoic philosophy is compatible with general improvement of human lot. Stoic techniques can help you deal with your poor worldly condition, and hence reduce your suffering. But it doesn’t dictate that you should remain in poor condition. For example, some stoic philosopher were among the richest people of their times, like Marcus Aurelius (was the emperor of Rome) and Seneca (was a very rich businessman).

The Trichotomy of Control

‘Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.’ – Epictetus

Epictetus divided everything concerning people into two domains—things external to us and things internal. It’s the divide between things you don’t have control over and things you have control over. Irvine turns Epictetus’ dichotomy into a trichotomy by further subdividing the latter category into two: things we don’t have ‘any control over’ and things we have ‘some, but not complete control’.

We always get stressed and anxious about all sorts of stuff, because we don’t bother to stop and reflect on why we are suffering. The Trichotomy of Control is the technique for sorting out different situations/goals and reduce the amount of anxiety, fear, stress, etc. in your life. We have different amounts of control over different goals and situations.

Situations/goals that you got complete control over

Epictetus includes ‘opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions’ under the category over which we have complete control. As Irvine states this is wrong. We don’t have complete control over our ‘impulses, desires, and aversions’—we either have no control or partial control. We can try and control them after they arise, but we can’t generate them. It’s better to put in this category our ability to make goals/plans and our ability to set values for ourselves. There are two big problems. The first problem is that we have complete control over our goals, but the outcome is still not under our complete control. The other problem is of assigning the correct values to things. In this case stoicism is helpless. The only advice is contemplation.

Situations/goals that you don’t have any control over

If after an examination of a situation you think you don’t have any control over it, that is the outcome of your goal or situation is independent of your actions, then there’s no reason for you to bother about it. To make this task easier, try to internalize your goals. When setting goals for yourself try to limit it at the boundary of your control. This way you fail less (or achieve your goals more) and be happy. If you put unrealistic goals for yourself without taking an account of your abilities and fail in turn, you would be miserable all the time and think of yourself as a failure. This might come off as risk-averse and conservative. But it should’t be. The trick is you shouldn’t just have couple of big goals in life and that’s it. Because most definitely you will fail them and feel your life was meaningless. It’s better to have many goals over which you have various degrees of control.

Situations/goals that you got some, but not complete control

This is the broadest category that concerns everyday life. The pessimistic view would be ‘Why bother taking risks and increase the chances of your failure? It’s better to limit your actions over stuff that you have most control over so you don’t suffer unnecessarily.’ Here Irvine proposes the technique of internalizing your goals. If you set your goal in winning some contest with high chance of failure, you most definitely will fail and feel bad for not achieving your goal. It’s better to set your goal within the domain of your control, not the outcome of the contest which is not 100% under your control no matter how hard you try, accidents happen. So internalization means setting your goals not on winning, but on doing your best.

Here the gamification principle might be of help. I think some types of sufferings depend on our formulation of things. So it’s better to look at some activities as games and participate in them just for the sake of participation and fun and not the outcome. Though participation and outcome are causally related, the amount of dissatisfaction depends on our initial goal. By doing our best in participation we may also win in the outcome, which is even better. But if we don’t win, we still had fun in our participation. Because if you set your goal on victory and mentally focus only on it and not win, you’ll suffer a lot. And not get even the enjoyment of the process itself. Basically internalizing the goals is a way of softening your fall.

Fatalism in Respect to Past (and Present?)

If something happened why bother about it. You can’t change the past. This advice doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t examine the past to learn from your mistakes, but rather a technique against getting dragged down fretting about past misfortunes and suffer as a result.

Self-Denial And Negative Visualization

Stoics advice periodical denial of certain pleasures to experience the state of their absence. This may seem to contradict with the main goal of reducing suffering. But from periodical practice of self denial, you increase your optionality—your freedom of action. You feel negative emotion for a short time as a practice, which helps you to not to worry about those emotions in the future. Also practice of self-denial shouldn’t be painful at all. You can approach it with playfulness, like workout—it’s hard and painful while at the same time extremely satisfying. By undergoing a short period of hardship you acquire immunity and in the long run you don’t have to worry about downsides of life much, because you know how to deal with them. For example, hedonistic utilitarians want to increase pleasure and may think that this process of undergoing self-imposed hardships is stupid. But from stoic’s point of view undergoing a period of hardship or denying yourself certain pleasure widens your horizons of experience and makes you more antifragile. If you practice self-denial from time to time you get adapted to wider situations and be better at dealing with them. Hedonistic utilitarians with their focus on pleasure lose optionality, they restrict their capacity to deal with wider range of emotions/experiences. This robs people of their freedom. What is pleasurable and what is suffering most of the time depend on your worldly experience and your attitude. The more you try different kinds of hardships or just participate in activities that you’re afraid of or shy about, the more your definition of pleasure widens. So from this point of view Stoicism is rather and active philosophy, despite most people thinking that it leads to complacency and inactivity.

On Insults

In order to maintain tranquility you have to find techniques against people or situations that try to disrupt it. Because we are social creatures insults hit us very hard. You remember some insults for decades and the memory of them keep causing you suffering. Insults can range from a humiliating joke to physical altercations, even not being acknowledged can cause us mental harm. So it’s best to have some tips on how to deal with them.

How to take insults

One strategy is to examine the insult and see if there’s something true to it. If someone jokes about you being bald, and you’re in fact bald, you shouldn’t feel angry. Another strategy is to try to examine an insult as a criticism, you may find something in it about yourself that you didn’t know and correct it. In this case insult is beneficial for you. Also the insulter may be misinformed about the situation and may sincerely believe in their insult. In this case you should just explain the true nature of the situation. It’s hard to separate insults from criticisms, but it’s really helpful to try to differentiate between the two more often. For example, if someone you admire gives you some criticism you should be happy about it. You can also feel happy if someone you don’t think much about criticizes you, in this case you’re doing something that your detractors disapprove of.

What about the insults toward disabled and underprivileged people or groups? Shouldn’t we discourage people from insulting them? It would be nice if people stopped being horrible to each other. But a better strategy would be to teach people on how to deal with negative situations. If we coddle people, and prevent them from hearing an insult they get more fragile. If they’re not used to negative situations a slight joke or insult may cause them real mental harm. If you’re exposed to negative emotions from time to time, you get more antifragile and be better abled to brush off people’s insults or negative emotions in general. The more you coddle people the more you restrict their freedom of action.

Antifragility is the exact opposite of fragility and should not be confused with resilience or robustness. Antifragile systems gain from stress (up to a limit) and become stronger. (Taleb actually credits Seneca as one of the first people who got the idea of antifragility.)

How to respond to insults

There are some rules on how to respond to insults. One strategy is to deny the person who’s insulting you the satisfaction of acknowledgement. The more outraged you get, the more encouraged the insulter gets. So deprive them of their oxygen. Another really effective strategy is self-deprication. If someone makes fun of your shortcomings, respond by saying that they’re being too generous and you and/or your actions are even worse than they think.

On Freedom

I noticed freedom being explicit and sometimes implicit end goal of a lot of stoic teachings. It’s not political freedom, but the most generic form of freedom. Freedom from suffering through management of emotions.

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