Book: A Guide to the Good life by William Irvine Art: The Lookout by Henry Scott Tuke Reading time: 5 mins
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that was founded in ancient Greece in the 3rd century BC. Members of Stoicism, also known as Stoics, teach that by using one’s rational mind to understand our role in the natural world and how to act in it, we can be virtuous individuals.
The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, realised that for a philosophy to be of use, it needs to expel the suffering of the mind, and in turn lead to a good life. Thus, Stoicism was created as a philosophy with a significant psychological component. The Stoics realised that negative emotions like anger, fear, anxiety and grief will not lead to a good life and prevent individuals from becoming virtuous.
The Stoics identified the psychological state of tranquility as one in which we experience very few negative emotions. To understand how to acheive tranquility, the Stoics became keen observers of humanity. They examined the sort of things that caused the human mind to experience negative emotions and based on these investigations, determined a body of psychological techniques for achieving tranquility.
1. Negative Visualisation
No matter how hard we try to prevent bad things from happening to us, they will happen nonetheless. The reality of human existence is such that we are destined to face misfortune throughout our lifetime. Stoics say that misfortune weighs most heavily on those who fail to accept its inevitability, while those who contemplate adversity find misfortune less likely to disrupt their tranquility.
Stoicism recommends that we recognise that everything we have and value is on loan from fate and that fate can take it back at any moment. If we refuse to contemplate the impermanence of the world, we will not only desire what we do not have, but we will also take what we have for granted.
The Stoics advise a psychological technique known as negative visualisation which helps the mind to evade the traps of ingratitude and desire. They recommend that we regularly spend time envisaging that we have lost the things that we most value. By periodically imagining what it would be like if our families, job or possessions are taken from us, we become grateful for what we have and we become mentally prepared if we lose them. This type of contemplation re-orients the mind to find tranquility in what is already within our grasp.
2. The Dichotomy of Control
One of the most important choices in life is whether to concern ourselves with things that are external to us or things that are internal. Stoics say that most people make the mistake of focusing on the world outside them, which they believe is the source of both harms and rewards. Instead of believing that contentment is gained from fulfilling desires in the external world such as fame, fortune, love or whatever it may be; the Stoics believed that contentment came from within.
A focus on external fulfilment ignores the fact that although there are things which we have complete control over, there are also things which we don’t have complete control over. This is known as the dichotomy of control. Ignoring this dichotomy leads to disruption in tranquility, as not only will we chase something that we may never get; we may also spend time worrying about things that are not up to us.
The Stoics believed that a lot of needless anxiety can be done away with if one considers the dichotomy of control when they are in a moment of misfortune. In these moments, a person may be intensely focusing on what is happening around them and forget that they have no control over it, giving rise to feelings of frustration and grief. The Stoics recommend that in these situations, we step back and acknowledge that we have no control over this adversity while also recognising that we have full control of our attitude towards the adversity. The dichotomy of control technique helps the mind to understand that which it can and cannot control, and when the mind recognises that it can control our character, our inside world, we are put in power of how we act in the misfortune.
As some aspects of our life are out of our control, Stoicism teaches that our life is largely determined by fate. The Stoics therefore advocate that we take a fatalistic view of our life by acknowledging that it is random probability that has landed us in the life that we are living. We must accept the environment, the people and the circumstances that life has dealt us, whereas if we do not, we will experience tranquility-disrupting emotions like grief and anger.
The Stoics thought that one way to preserve tranquility was to take an especially fatalistic attitude towards the things that have happened to us in the past. By being fatalistic in respect to the past, a person is unlikely to spend time worrying about how the past might have been different and how their current situation could be different. Through fatalism, such a person achieves tranquility because they embrace each moment of their life. Fatalism is thus a mirror-image of negative visualisation, as instead of thinking about how a situation could be worse, the mind refuses to think about how a situation could be better.
Stoicism does not however teach that we should be apathetic to our fate and that we should not try to improve our circumstances. Instead, it encourages us to take note of the good that we still possess in our circumstances. A person who practices fatalism is therefore more likely to find satisfaction in their current life and not chase satisfaction through external desires. The fatalism technique therefore helps to achieve tranquility by removing the dissatisfaction that comes with wondering how life could be different and in its place, producing a feeling of gratitude for the life we have.
The Stoics thought that one way to increase your appreciation for life, and likewise increase tranquility, was to not only contemplate bad things happening but also live as if they did. Stoicism therefore advocates that we occassionally spend some time in voluntary discomfort. The Stoics believed that periodically denying ourselves of some pleasures is better overall for our tranquility for several reasons.
Firstly, by choosing to be hungry or to be cold, we harden ourselves against any misfortune in the future. If all we know is comfort, we may experience great fear and anger when comfort is taken away from us and through voluntary self-denial, we may protect our future tranquility. Through self-denial, we become used to minor discomforts and this instils in us a confidence that we can withstand major discomforts if we need to. Another benefit of self-denial is that it helps us to appreciate what we already have. By purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we will greatly appreciate those comforts that we take for granted such as warmth and food.
The Stoics therefore suggest that we should practice self-denial by occasionally forgoing opportunities to experience pleasure. For example, on some days, we should eat only when we are hungry and not for the sake of eating. Self-denial will inevitably build in us the trait of self-control which is valuable in a time where pleasure is abundant. In the end, by occasionally denying ourself of some comforts, we cease to become puppets to our desires, and we increase our tranquility by experiencing genuine pleasure, the pleasure taken from being proud of our character.