I’ve been struggling with blogging over the holiday period. Writing is a strange compulsion for me. I never quite feel satisfied if I close out a day without writing something. But people keep telling me I should ‘switch off’ and relax now and then. So I’ve tried to step back from it over the past two weeks. I think this has had the opposite of the desired effect. The dissatisfaction grows with each passing day and I feel frustrated by the various social and family obligations which block my return to writing.
This has led me to reflect on issues of psychological suffering and the causes of anxiety, which has, in turn, has led me back to one of my first philosophical loves: Stoicism. Like many in the modern world, I have long been a fan of the pragmatic branches of Stoic philosophy. Its somewhat gloomy realism and psychological coping mechanisms have been a source of solace over the years. I have developed a more critical stance towards its central tenets in more recent times but continue to be attracted to the writings of Seneca and Epictetus (less so Marcus Aurelius) as well as their more modern equivalents.
Anyway, I thought I would write a short post on what I take to be the central message of stoicism and one of the paradoxes to which it gives rise. This will serve the dual purpose of combatting my frustration with the lack of writing and encouraging me to think about ways to cope with that frustration. In writing this I draw, in particular, on the work of Epictetus, along with the relevant chapters in Jules Evans’s book Philosophy for Life, which is an enjoyable, pragmatically-oriented overview of classical philosophy.
1. The Central Teaching of Stoicism: Understand Zones of Control
For me, the central teaching of stoicism is that there are some things that under our control and some things that are not. Learning to distinguish between the two is the key to psychological health and well-being. This teaching is summed up in Epictetus’s the Enchiridion:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.
(The Enchiridion, translated by Elizabeth Carter)
As with much of classic philosophy, this has to be translated and modified in order to be palatable to modern ears. For instance, I don’t think I could quite agree with Epictetus that our bodies are not within our control, and I could only agree that ‘desire’ and ‘aversion’ are within our control if we first had a long conversation about what is meant by that word ‘control’. But these are the tedious concerns of someone who is too well-versed in the intricacies of analytical argumentation to deem anything to be uncontroversial. The basic insight seems to be correct. There are things within our control and things without. Most of the former involve things that take place within our bodies and minds; most of the latter involve things in the world around us.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s distinguish between the two realms by calling the former Zone 1 and the latter Zone 2 (I take these terms from Evans’s book). Zone 1 is our sovereign domain and it contains the things that are within our control. Zone 2 is the external world and it contains things that are beyond our control. This is illustrated in the diagram below.
The Stoic route to psychological well-being comes from two key insights about these zones. The first key insight is to realise that Zone 1 is much smaller than Zone 2. Indeed, in some classical Stoic works Zone 1 has remarkably spartan furnishings, consisting solely of our beliefs about the world around us. A more luxuriant furnishing of Zone 1 may be possible, but as a starting point we can accept that Zone 1 will be sparsely populated. The second key insight then comes from realising that much of our anxiety, anger and frustration stems from (a) thinking that we can control things in Zone 2 and (b) failing to take control over things in Zone 1. Evans sums this up pretty nicely so I’ll just quote from him:
A lot of suffering arises, Epictetus argues, because we make two mistakes. Firstly, we try to exert absolute sovereign control over something in Zone 2, something external which is not in our control. Then, when we fail to control it, we feel helpless, out of control, angry, guilty, anxious or depressed. Secondly, we don’t take responsibility for Zone 1, our thoughts and beliefs…Instead, we blame our thoughts on the outside world, on our parents, our friends, our lover, our boss, the economy, the environment, the class system, and then we end up, again, feeling bitter, helpless, victimised, out of control, and at the mercy of external circumstances.
(Evans 2012, 31)
I think there is wisdom in this. Whenever I find myself veering towards anger and frustration I try to take the Stoic shift in perspective, re-focusing on what I can control and dissolving my frustration with what I cannot. This is the approach I have taken toward to my recent frustration with the lack of writing. I have realised that there are ways in which to accommodate my desire to write within the social calendar of the holiday period, and that you cannot force yourself to relax by conforming to others’ expectations.
2. The Paradox of Stoicism: A Philosophy of Empowerment or Resignation?
Despite the practical wisdom I see in this central Stoic teaching, I can’t help but criticise certain elements of it. The problems are right there in the passage I quoted from Jules Evans. The advice seems to encourage a kind of passive disengagement from the world around us. The larger social forces that affect our lives (the economy, the class system etc) are deemed beyond our control. The source of misery lies in thinking we can control those forces. We need to step back and focus on what we can control: our beliefs and psychological reactions to the world. The implication seems to be that we should accommodate those to our social reality and not constantly strive to change the world. This seems to be a philosophy of resignation. How can a concern for social justice and technological progress find a foothold within this worldview?
At this point we have to confront the central paradox of stoicism. Even though there is something within the central teaching that lends itself to this resigned and disengaged point of view, the fact is that many of the founding fathers of the Stoic tradition, and many of its contemporary adherents, are deeply ambitious and active people. Many of them do strive to make the world a better place. They don’t collapse into a form of learned helplessness. Why is this? What accounts for the seeming paradox?
The answer is that the paradox is more superficial than real. Stoicism can be a philosophy of empowerment not simply one of resignation. Taking the Stoic shift in perspective enables empowerment. You don’t waste time on that which you cannot control; you focus on what is within your control and you realise that what is within your control can have some effect on what happens in Zone 2. It is limited and attenuated, to be sure, but it is real nevertheless. By carefully leveraging this attenuated form of control you can still engage with the world around you. You can still care about social justice and progress. But you can do so in a better way, maintaing your enthusiasm and stamina without burning out and feeling frustrated and let down when you don’t achieve all your initial goals.
That’s not to say that resignation is not part of stoicism. It still lurks in the background. It’s to say that there are two pathways to Stoic contentment:
Path of Resignation: accepting that you can change very little in the world and resigning yourself to this by focusing on accommodating your beliefs to the broader reality.
Path of Empowerment: accepting that you can change very little in the world but realising that you do have some power to change things and focusing on what you can change, not what you can’t.
The difference between the two pathways is marginal. The second pathway is the tougher of the two. To make positive changes in the broader reality you need good evidence about the causal influence our your actions, and you need to make good decisions about how to exercise your causal power. This requires far more patience, dedication and care than most people are able to muster. But it’s better than perpetual frustration.
For what it is worth, I think that the effective altruist (EA) movement is good example of a social movement that encourages people to take the second pathway. I appreciate this is controversial but, at its heart, the EA movement is about demonstrating how individual decision-making can have a profound positive effects on the world. It is also about focusing on what the individual can control not what they cannot. It is often criticised for this limited perspective (e.g. for not trying to change social institutions), and I have no doubt that members of the movement feel frustrated and angry when they confront a perceived lack of progress, but I still think there is something quintessentially Stoic about the outlook of the EA movement as a whole. I might write about this topic more in the future.