The appeal and wisdom of Stoicism

2020-04-06

in Daily updates, Psychology

CBC’s Ideas with Nahlah Ayed ran a good segment on Stoicism during the coronavirus pandemic. It covers a lot of what I find appealing about philosophy and the contrast with the “power of positive thinking” notion which I dispute both factually and ethically. We can’t make things happen by wanting them or “thinking positive”, and indeed our total control over what happens in the world at large is extremely minimal. As with mortality, those are the conditions which we must live with and it’s counter-productive or delusional to choose to believe otherwise.

The piece closes with a reference to Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life“, which is probably productive reading even during these times when people feel subjected to an undeserved burden of social isolation or illness. It also reminded me of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s excellent audiobooks, which I am loading back on to my phone to accompany further solitary walks across the city.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. April 11, 2020 at 8:21 pm

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste
much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous
measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is
well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless
living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally
presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing
has passed away.”

https://archive.org/stream/SenecaOnTheShortnessOfLife/Seneca+on+the+Shortness+of+Life_djvu.txt

. May 4, 2020 at 7:51 pm

“Some history. I said that stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means… Its tenets can be summarized as follows: The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life’s gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life’s dirty tricks. But things can be carried to the extreme; the stern Cato found it beneath him to have human feelings. A more human version can be found in Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, a soothing and surprisingly readable book that I distribute to my trader friends (Seneca also took his own life when cornered by destiny).

Randomness and Personal Elegance

Dress at your best on your execution day (shave carefully); try to leave a good impression on the death squad by standing erect and proud. Try not to play the victim when diagnosed with cancer (hide it from others and only share the information with the doctor—it will avert the platitudes and nobody will treat you like a victim worthy of their pity; in addition, the dignified attitude will make both defeat and victory feel equally heroic). Be extremely courteous to your assistant when you lose money (instead of taking it out on him as many of the traders whom I scorn routinely do). Try not to blame others for your fate, even when they deserve blame. Never exhibit any self-pity, even if your significant other bolts with the handsome ski instructor or the younger aspiring model. Do not complain. If you suffer from a benign version of the “attitude problem,” like one of my childhood friends, do not start playing nice guy if your business dries up (he sent a heroic e-mail to his colleagues informing them “less business, but same attitude”). The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behaviour. Good luck.”

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. 2005. p. 248-9

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