Tuesday, October 7, 2014


I've been listening to The History of Rome podcast for the past month or so. I'll be doing a full review of the series once I'm done with it (Atilla has just been introduced, so the end is nigh), but a while back during the reign of Marcus Aurelius I learned that he was a fan of Stoicism. Marcus himself, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, was by most accounts an intelligent, good man whose greatest failure was not keeping his son, Joaquin Phoenix, from succeeding him as emperor.

I have often been called stoic myself, and though that word means something different today than it meant 2,000 years ago, I feel a deep connection with that ancient philosophy.

Today, to be stoic means to seem unemotional. It's a curious feature, but not one that's examined much beyond that surface curiosity. Few people are really interested in why a person seems unemotional. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and the stoic wheel rarely squeaks.

Stoicism puts into words many of the things I've felt but rarely had reason to describe. It's not that a stoic doesn't feel emotions, but rather they respond to those emotions by being still. Emotions aren't a call to action, they are a call to become reflective. Logic and reason should drive action, not emotion.

Sometimes I become very self-conscious of my peculiarities. Once, it seemed strange to me that anger rarely drove me to destructive behavior. I recognized that it was a good thing, but strange nonetheless. So, once when I was a security guard working at a garbage dump, someone left things in a bit of a mess. (Just because its full or garbage, doesn't mean it's disorganized.) After they left, I decided to act on my frustration; to "let it all out," as people say. I directed my anger toward something productive: putting things where they belonged, but angrily: kicking things, breaking stuff, and just generally letting loose in a productive manner.

I ended up cutting my hand pretty badly on a nail sticking out of a board. The nail's head left deep cuts in several of my fingers before embedding itself in my pinky finger. I'm honestly surprised that I don't see the scars anymore. The experience hurt, of course, as any damage to your nerve-laden fingers is naturally very painful.

However, as I bandaged myself up, I ended up laughing at how ridiculous I had been. My anger had led directly to my own pain. It was a very direct lesson, and one I never forgot. I never lost my temper like that again, especially not over something so trivial. I still get angry sometimes, of course, but I never act upon it. So, most people just assume I never get angry at all.

Anyway, there's a lot more to Stoicism than equanimity. It's a great state of mind and, I think, the best position from which to make decisions, but I could go on forever about the virtues of keeping a calm demeanor. Instead I want to talk about other aspects of Stoicism I find appealing.

For instance, Stoicism holds as an important tenant that all people are equal, and we should all be willing to work together and help each other out. This seems like a common idea in modern times, but Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, over 2,300 years old. It was born in a time when slavery was common, class and wealth were paramount, and kings were sometimes considered gods. (So, same as today, except we don't call it slavery anymore.) Still, I'm pretty sure that philosophies of equality have existed for as long as inequality has been around, so I doubt it was a revolutionary idea.

Then there's the very basic concept that knowledge can be attained through the use of reason. Reason and logic are at the core of the stoic philosophy for understanding the world around us. The equanimity helps us use our senses more clearly in order to have more accurate sensory data to understand. It is much easier to detect fallacy if we are not blinded by our emotions.

In the end, there's very little I find fault with in Stoicism. There's some parts I'm not sure I understand completely, though. For instance, classically they consider the universe to be a sentient thing, a pantheistic deity in and of itself. Like the Force, it penetrates and moves the passive matter that makes up the bulk of the universe in ways both subtle and, if you count the souls of living creatures as an extension of the universe's will, not-so-subtle ways. We are all cogs in the greater machine of fate, and though it may not be our job to know its final function, if we understand our place in the machine we can begin to see its workings all around us.

This somewhat jives with the Christianity I grew up with. Although Stoicism was renounced by Christianity due to some minor differences (a pantheistic god rather than a personified one, souls aren't immortal, etc), I don't think they were that off-base. Besides, Christianity was great at dividing themselves over doctrinal disputes regarding matters more trivial than that.

That said, I think Stoicism is my new favorite philosophy. Like any philosophy, I'm inclined to take what makes sense to me about it, and not take the rest too seriously. After all, in the words of Marcus Aurelius:
If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.


  1. Stoicism gets a pretty bad rap, and I blame it squarely on Spock. His existence created this weird dichotomy of emotion vs. logic, to the extent that I still get called Spock sometimes when advocating reasonable approaches to problems rather than emotional ones.

    It's not as if emotion should be disregarded entirely, or even that it shouldn't be a part of decision making. Taking into account emotional well-being is an important component of the reasoning process. And without empathy, emotionally based concern for other people's pain, we take away the motivation for a lot of the good reason can do.

    Anyway, it's pretty striking how much of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations still reads well today. I know some people who re-read it every year and find new wisdom from it. It's a rare example of a great philosophical work that manages to stay both relevant and readable.

    1. I briefly mentioned a similarity between Stoicism and the Jedi in my post, but the similarities go way beyond this "unifying force" concept. Equanimity, helpfulness, reduced reliance on material possessions: that is the Jedi way. In many ways, I appreciate Star Wars Stoicism over Star Trek Stoicism.

      That said, the Jedi focus on a lack of attachments and general chastity seem harmful in their own way, and have no basis in Stoicism as far as I can tell.

      However, the fact that Sith are completely the opposite is one of the reasons I just can't find them cool. One of the many reasons, I should say.

    2. Yeah, but I think that's because Star Trek stoicism was designed to be a misrepresentation in the first place. Episodes that focus on it tend to paint the Vulcan characters as "too logical" to some kind of detriment.

      I wish Star Wars, meanwhile, had done a better job of making really passionate, emotionally driven Sith Lords to better foil the Jedi. Palpatine was pretty great at this in Episode 3. I also like how the prequel trilogy used the coldness of the Jedi as a way to make Anakin's fall (at least slightly) more believable - emotional, angry people are just never going to make good Jedi.

  2. After reading so many of your blog post, I've come to the conclusion that our mental similarities are uncanny. For instance there are plenty of things I have long since thought about myself, and they ended up being literal definitions of the words you compare yourself to.

    Though I knew I wasn't nearly the first to think the way I do, I was rarely ever interested enough to look into it. The fact I was able to learn these things about & from someone who actually matters in my life overjoyed me inside.

    Seeing how the people around me react and handle different situations gives me a feeling of separation. Having only met less than a hand full of people I consider similar to myself, I often feel a sense of loneliness. I genuinely enjoy life though and am glad to be able to see you do to.

    1. I remember when Mom used to call you names like "Glenny Junior" or the like, and though the name was intended to be insulting, you'd get inordinately angry about it. It seemed like you were less offended at being compared to that specific person than you were about being compared to someone else at all. You were, I believe, fiercely individualistic.

      I can't blame you for that, but I've always tried to be more focused on where I can relate to someone rather than where I'm different. I'm glad, though, that you feel comfortable relating to me. Sometimes I forget how similar we are.

  3. It's really funny that you would notice something like that. I still get quite irritated when people compare me to others, and I've noticed it myself. Though when I talk to anyone I look for our similarities simply to make a conversation more interesting, or to build a stronger bond.

    My problem with being compared to another is that the comparison is being based on what was seen. I only allow people to see as much of me as I choose, and obviously depending on the person and their interest my attitude and input will differ accordingly. I do this to accommodate others, so even if a comparison may fit at the time it possibly couldn't be more wrong.