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From Vol. 5, Issue 6, June 2023

Stoic reflections

Stoic Reflections || Chuck Chakrapani

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It is never the case that we have eaten so much over the years that we never have to eat again. It is never the case that we exercised for so many years that we never have to exercise ever again. It is never the case that we have walked so much over the years that we never have to walk again.

So it is with Stoicism or any other philosophy of life. We might have mastered the teachings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and other Stoics; we might have diligently practised the Stoic principles most of our lives. Yet it is never the case that we can stop reflecting on the principles because we have reflected on them enough. Practising Stoicism is a life-long pursuit. No matter how long we have been practising, we still need to continue.

One of the aims of Stoicism is to get rid of “passions” or negative emotions such as anger, fear, hate, or jealousy and replace them with their rational alternatives. Does that mean a Stoic would not be afraid if he is about to be run over by a truck? Or that a Stoic would not feel anger if she sees a child being beaten to death by a stranger? Seneca has the answer:

No amount of wisdom can get rid of natural flaws of the body. What is innate and rooted can be toned down, but not overcome. Even the most self-assured speakers often break into a sweat when they are in front of a crowd, as if they are tired and overheated. Some get weak in the knees as they stand up to speak. Their teeth chatter, tongues falter, and lips quiver. Training and experience cannot shake this habit. No, nature exerts its power and make its presence known even to the strongest. - Seneca, Moral Letters, Letter 11

Seneca points out that many of our first reactions are decided by “nature” (in our examples, by our biological programming). These reactions are visceral and not necessarily rational. They are involuntary and not under our conscious control. So it is not the visceral reactions we have for stimuli that provoke anger, fear, disgust, hate or any other negative “passions” that identify us as Stoics or otherwise because we share our visceral reactions with all humans.

What makes us Stoic is what we decide to do after our visceral reaction subsides. Do we continue nurturing and stoking our negative emotions or do we look upon things more rationally and let go of our negative reactions? When you throw a pebble on a still water pond, the ripple is inevitable. But within a short time, the water becomes still again. Likewise, can we let go of our negative reactions even when we inevitably feel it? This choice is what makes us Stoic.

Epictetus calls our first reactions – whether visceral or conditioned – “impressions.” So when we feel fear, anger, or any other emotion, what we have is just an impression, our initial reaction to some external or internal stimulus. Epictetus asks us to:

Start by challenging everything that appears disagreeable. “You are only an appearance. Let me fully understand what you are.” ... [then] 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, Enchiridion 1

Epictetus believes that judging impressions is the most important thing we can do.

Our most important job is to test our impressions and accept only the ones that pass the test. Instead of doing just this one thing right… we burden ourselves with so many things that they weigh us down. - Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1

As our life flows we are constantly confronted by a never-ending stream of impressions.

• You come across a tweet which seems fairly ignorant to you. Do you immediately retweet it with your comments highlighting its ignorance?

• You are travelling alone in an unfamiliar foreign country. Do you ever panic wondering if you are on the correct train, from the correct platform, at the correct time?

• Someone suggests “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Are you paralyzed into inaction because of the near impossibility of setting your “perfect order,” whatever that means?

• Do you often catch yourself getting upset at the same old traffic, the same old people, or the re-occurring menial tasks at work that always cause you discomfort?

• Do you project your thoughts a long way ahead so it is not a forethought any more but something that causes fear?

In fact, all of us, more often we care to admit, experience such thoughts and actions. Often we act without examining our impressions.

Even when we have acted on an impression without examining it, there is no reason why we shouldn’t examine it later, so we are prepared the next time we are faced with similar impressions.

This is what I mean by “Stoic reflections”. We are not perfect and never will be perfect. The ancient Stoics admitted that a Stoic sage is as mythical as Phoenix, the mythical bird. All we can do is keep taking steps – however small, however slow – towards becoming a Stoic sage. Travelling towards your destination is a lot more fun than sitting at home because you don’t think you will ever get there.

Examining our impressions involves, most of all, wisdom. Is the thing that I am angry about, upset about, fearful about, hateful about, “under my control” (“up to me”)? Most of the time we will realize the things that bother us or anger us are outside our sphere of control and are externals. We have no control over them and they are in fact nothing to us.

The second aspect of examining our impressions involves understanding the implications of our thoughts and actions. Even if our acts are intrinsically neither good nor bad, are they compatible with practical wisdom, moderation, courage and justice, the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism?

To put it another way, when we reflect on our impressions, we are applying the priciples of wisdom to navigate our life to a rational and tranquil place.

Socrates said that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. I am not sure if I agree with that sentiment in general, but in the context of examining our impressions, it makes sense. When we examine our impressions we see that many of our negative emotions are counterproductive, irrational, and absurd. Instead of unthinkingly repeating our unproductive beahviour, if we choose to examine the impression that led to our unproductive behaviour, we are likely to lead happier and better lives. And that is the purpose of Stoic philosophy.

It is never too late to examine an impression even if we have acted on the impression many times without examining it in the past. As Seneca says,

What could be more foolish than refusing to learn now, because you didn’t learn it earlier? - Seneca, Moral Letters, Letter 76

In this issue of THE STOIC, our contributing Stoics take a step back and examine their impressions and tell us what they learned. While their thoughts and observations are valuable, when we examine our thoughts, we may learn different lessons. The important thing is the act of examining our impressions and going wherever that examination leads us. An honest examination of our impressions, however, take us to only one place – wisdom. And that is what Stoicism aims to teach us.