The Mindfulness of Stoicism, Part Four

Last week I continued a discussion of the Stoic methods of inner-discipline (what’s popularly called spiritual practice nowadays).

Number one is Write and Reflect in the Morning. The second is Focus on Your Goals. The third is Take the Long View and Practice Letting Go.

Today I want to look at the fourth, Practice Self Control.

For the Stoics, the secret to happiness (better translated as “flourishing”) is doing the right thing. Sure, in reality the road is more complicated than that, since we must find the the way down that road before we can travel it. But the goal is clear: happiness; and the method for attaining happiness is clear: do the right thing.

Nowadays philosophers categorize motivations for ethics—why we do the right thing—into three broad headings. People act well:

A. Because there are rules and duties and good people obey those rules and do their duty.

B. Because there are rules and and duties and there are consequences: act well or else.

C. Because we understand that virtue is the ultimate good and we seek to know what the virtues are and to act according to virtue.

Stoics fall into the latter camp. This is known as Virtue Ethics. Virtue Ethicists believe that studying what virtue is and acting virtuously is the way to happiness.

Well, sure—that sounds fine, but reading about ethics won’t help someone act ethically in the heat of battle, or life, will it? How do we internalize virtue?

Stoics suggested that we model our lives on great people and the ideal of the Sage. And for the Stoics, Socrates was the greatest model. Epictetus said,

Here’s how Socrates did it: when someone asked Socrates to introduce him to a particular famous philosopher, he did it without thinking “I’m better.” When the ignorant discuss deep matters, bite your tongue. Don’t vomit what you haven’t chewed. When you are told you’re ignorant and you manage to be unruffled, you know your practice is working. (Handbook, 46)

Not bad advice! Epictetus also said, “This is how Socrates did it: he learned from every experience, using only his own mind. You may not be Socrates, but still you can live like someone trying to be Socrates.” (Handbook, 50.)

Due to his pursuit of the good, Socrates lost his reputation and his life. Athens could not, however, take away his virtue.

Marcus Aurelius gives us a clear set of instructions for a way of thinking that will lead to virtuous action:

We must watch our thoughts, noticing useless thoughts, especially malignant thoughts and over-thinking. We must strive to think in such a way that, should we stop and ask, “What am I thinking right now?” we can always answer immediately, “this,” “that,” and every thought is simple and benevolent—the kind of thought that befits a social animal—not indulgences or back-biting or envy or suspicion or anything else that would make us blush.

For those who seek to be among the best of humanity, those accessing the deep good within, strive to be uncontaminated by indulgence and untouched by insult, feeling no wrongs, Those few are fighters in the noblest fight; they are those who cannot be overcome by passions. Those are deep-dyed in justice, accepting what happens and not worried about the opinions of others. Then it is only our actions that concern us and we are content where we are, for where we are is where are are coming from.

These (sages) remember that all living things are our family and that caring for all is our nature and that we should worry about the opinions only of those who live according to the natural way of things.

But as for those who do not live according to nature, we keep in mind what they are and what they do, and we do not worry about the opinions of those who do not value themselves. (Meditations III. 4)

“The kind of thought that befits a social animal.” That fairly well summarizes the project of Virtue Ethics.

The mental exercises of Stoicism inspired the development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the twentieth century. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a set of techniques that have been shown to be as effective as psychotropic drugs in many situations for many people. Thought. Action. Reflection.

Using mental exercises to prepare the brain and body to react to life’s events is a very old human idea. The Xunzi, collection of Confucian writing from the 300s BCE, offers this advice:

That which is used as it was from birth is called human nature. The part of human nature that . . . resonates and responds spontaneously and without interference is also called human nature. The likes, dislikes, happiness, anger, sorrows, and joys of human nature are called emotions. When the emotions are thus, and the mind acts (wei) upon them and makes choices, this is called thinking. When the mind thinks and is able to act (wei) upon its thoughts and move, this is called artifice. (From “Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi: Selected Passages from the Chinese Philosophers in The Path” by Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh.)

“Artifice” is not a word that we like to use for human actions in the twenty-first century. We value openness and naturalness. This is not the way of the ancients. The Stoics would have used the word “cultivation” rather than “artifice,” but they too thought that our emotions and actions are best dealt with like a garden that needs regular weeding. This is the central teaching of Epictetus, who instructs,

Some things we can do, some things we can’t. We control our opinions, desires, aversions, and—to be plain—our own emotions.

We have little power over our bodies, our things, or what others think of us. To be plain—these things are not our worries. (Note: Epictetus was a Roman slave.)

What happens when you try to take power over what you have no power over?Frustration. Complaints. Fuss and bother. Finding fault with everything.

Take power over what you have power over. Then there’s no resistance. There is no “no.” You won’t get hurt.

Merely keep in mind what you have power over. Don’t cross the line. If you forget—if you go looking for money and power—you might get hurt. And, even if you don’t, you will miss what’s important: happiness. Freedom.

Listen: learn what illusion looks like. Learn to say, “Hey, that’s an illusion.” Learn to ask: “What is in my power?” If it’s not in your power, forget about it.

Note how close this is to the “Serenity Prayer:”

Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

It is, of course, the “wisdom to know the difference” that Stoic exercises help with. Marcus Aurelius advised:

You may not have time to read. But you do have time to check your arrogance. You do have time to live beyond mere pleasure and pain. You do have time to be superior to the lust for fame. You do have time to stop being vexed by stupid, ungrateful people. You even have time to care about them. (Meditations VIII.8)

Not a bad way to start being virtuous . . .IMG_2522

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About David Breeden

The Rev. Dr. David Breeden is Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He became a minister after a career as a university professor, teaching creative writing and literature. He has written several books on theological topics and translates the writings of philosophers of classical antiquity. More information is available at