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From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022

The Stoic approach to thinking about the past


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“We shouldn’t overly focus on heavy duty metaphysics. Finding out what the world is really like is not really our area of expertise anymore. Physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology take care of that. The one job we have is to remain Stoics whatever the world is like.”

Things beyond our control

One interesting tenet about the Dichotomy of Control is that it admits of no degrees. We either can control something or we can’t. A given issue is within our power or isn’t. There is no gray area, there are no surprises or riddles here. All things that are beyond our control are equally beyond our control. That’s a plain fact about the Stoic approach.

We control the past the least

Yet, if we agree to use a tongue-in-cheek language for a moment, we may say that of all the things we can’t control the past is the very one we control the least. Just think about it. All the past events, the entire panorama of our personal story and universal history, everything that came to pass before this very moment, be it an hour, a day, or a century ago, all that is beyond not only my, but also anyone else’s, control. It’s not just me. Literally no one can change past events. They are ultimately, irreversibly closed and sealed. The past is like the weather, like the tides of the ocean, like the motion of the planets. It is ultimately beyond human reach, completely independent from anyone.

Don’t focus on what you cannot control

It’s clear what follows from this. The Dichotomy of Control, i.e., the crucial Stoic principle, states that if you can’t control something then you mustn’t focus on it. More precisely: you should focus on what you can control. Yet more adequately: you should use the things you can control (and them only!) to shape your way of thinking, your values, goals, your understanding of yourself and of the world.

The past influences us

But let’s dig a little deeper. What does it mean – specifically – that the past is beyond our control? Sure enough, it’s true in the basic sense: we indeed cannot change the past. No one can. We can’t influence it any more. On the other hand, though, this doesn’t mean that we are somehow separated from the past or that it’s irrelevant. The past influences us all the time! More than that, the past makes us “us”. We are shaped by our experiences, by the story of our life, by our traumas, sensibilities, and idiosyncrasies. My present “self ” is the net output of all my past selves and the experiences amassed over time.

Our narrratives change over time

Furthermore, history teaches that our perception of the past fundamentally depends on the narrative and context we put it in. A war is usually remembered quite differently by the belligerents. Also, those narratives change over time. The way the Civil War was remembered in the 1910s is completely different than how it was remembered in the 2010s. An extreme point about that is embodied in the saying that Russia is a country with an unpredictable past. There is no way of knowing how tomorrow’s propaganda will twist the history of the country to serve its political purposes.

What does it all mean from the Stoic point of view? I repeat quite often that “not focusing on what’s beyond our control” is a major misunderstanding about the Stoic method. In fact, the opposite is true. What we must do is focus on what we do control. Consequently, once we apply this to the past, we learn that simply “not focusing” on the past is not enough. The Stoic approach is about the direction of our focus, not about forcing ourselves to not think about something.

We can frame the way we think about the past

Therefore, we are not supposed to pretend that the past (our experiences, our background, our conditioning, our past loves, adventures, disappointments, the story of our life in general) does not exist. That would lead us nowhere. What we ought to do is concentrate on how we think about the past. What we think today is – let me remind you – something we can control. We have the power to work on our present narratives, on our present frame of thinking, on the way we comprehend the world and ourselves. This is exactly how we need to treat the past. We can’t change it, but we can frame the way we think about it. This is what we should focus on.

We can’t alter the past, that’s sure. Yet, we may and we should try to shape how its manifests itself in our thoughts and actions today. This is exactly the take the Stoics advise.

imageDr. Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer and philosopher, promoter of reformed Stoicism. He authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism, and Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?