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From Vol. 3, Issue 8, August 2021

Traps we set for ourselves


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Stoic traps

Stoicism is a philosophy of life. Its path may be hard but it sets no traps. The Stoic traps we discuss in this issue are the traps we set for ourselves when we practice Stoicism. And such traps are many.

The Lipsius trap

The most interesting of all these traps is projecting our values on to Stoicsim. We can find the manifestation of this trap everywhere: “broism”, “manliness”, harshness and even violence are promoted in the name of Stoicism.

A major revision of Stoic philosophy occurred when a 16th Century classical scholar and humanist, Justus Lipsius, decided to make Stoicism compatible with Christianity and laid the framework for it in De Constantia (On Constancy). Eventually his version of Stoicism was rejected by the Church and very few Modern Stoics know about him.

Revising philosophic doctrines to suit one’s own values is not limited to Stoicism. We can see such distortions in religion, political philosophies, and even science.

Leo Konstanakos and Kai Whiting call this the Lipsius trap and warn us of its dangers. We assume, without justification, that the ancients’ views are “less coherent than ours, merely because we see them as incompatible with the way we want the world to be.” So we end up distorting Stoic views to be compatible with our world view.

This trap is not obvious to those who are eager to revise Stoicism and we need to be particularly wary of it.

The Stoic creed trap

The flipside of the Lipsius trap is to treat Stoicism as a catechism or an official declaration of faith. Many academic papers that endlessly parse the words of the ancient Stoics fall into this category. Avoiding this trap needs discernment.

Says Sharon Lebell. “We are on deck, receptive to piecemeal insight. We are willing to listen. We are willing to hear, and we are willing to heed and to try. We affirm that our life matters, that this moment counts. And we roll up our sleeves.”

The appearances trap

There is nothing new about the appearances trap. But difficulties arise because, as Brittany Polat points out, the truth is not always obvious or easy to understand. Things are not the way they appear to us. So we need to be careful not to be carried away by our superficial impressions of things, which are usually misleading. But how do we do this?

Start by challenging everything that appears disagreeable. “You are only an appearance. Let me fully understand what you are.” Then, using the distinction we talked about, examine it to see if it is under your total control. If it is not within your control, it is nothing to you; there’s nothing to worry about. - Epictetus, Encheiridion. 1

Brittany Polat emphasizes the importance of not falling into the appearance trap. She says, “It is absolutely essential for us to continually question our own emotional reactions and the information we receive from the world. There’s no doubt that it takes hard work to maintain a reflective and discerning stance toward our impressions. But all the effort is worth it: ultimately, there’s no other way to learn the truth.”

The fear trap

“We are living in a period of incredible technological innovation. Some of these technologies, however, are also contributing to rising anxiety and general unhappiness,” says Meredith Kunz. Statistics from the U.S. tell a sad story. Nearly one in two Americans have feelings of anxiety or sadness. And two-thirds of Americans also felt that the issues facing their countries are overwhelming. Feelings like these inevitably lead to fear, anger, and depression.

What can we do?

Meredith, in her article, gives a series of tips to overcome fears ranging from physical exercise to turning off social media.

The trap of worrying without deciding

Why do we worry? More importantly, why do we keep worrying? In any given situation, Piotr Stankiewicz points out, we have two choices:

[A] We can decide that we can’t accept the situation any longer and do something about it; or

[B] We can decide that doing something about the problem under the circumstances may make it worse.

So we either improve the situation by acting on it or by accepting it so it doesn’t get any worse. In either case, there is no need to worry about the situation because we chose the best outcome given our constraints at the moment.

Where is the trap?

The trap is not taking either course of action but simply worrying about what might happen without taking any action.

All of us want to live our best lives. But what gets in our way is often the traps we set for ourselves.

As our contributors in this issue point out, our fear, anger, and indecision are fuelled by our misjudging appearances. We make matters worse for ourselves either by fossilising Stoicism as an inviolable creed or failing to learn from it by revising it to fit our preconceptions.

In the final analysis, Stoicism has always been simple. Sure, it was presented with an elaborate pedestal of Stoic physics as the basis. But just reading and practicing Epictetus’s 60-page Handbook is all a modern practitioner may need to avoid the traps discussed in this issue of THE STOIC. I hope you find the articles in this issue helpful in your Stoic journey.