At the core of the Stoic theory of happiness is our ability to control our thoughts. The wise man should try to exercise control over what they can control and not try to control what they cannot. Events in the outside world are not predictable or under our control, but they is always distinct from the thoughts that we create in response to these events. And our thoughts we can and must control in order to be happy. This is the essence of Stoic freedom.
Three Stoic philosophers
One look at the three most prominent Stoic philosophers is enough to convince us that something quite remarkable is going on: Epictetus (55-135 AD) was born a slave. Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD) was a celebrated philosopher and writer, and teacher to a crazy emperor of Rome. And Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) was himself the Emperor of Rome for almost twenty years. But he was also a soldier, and he died in the forests of what is now Austria, fighting the Germanic tribes that threatened Rome.
One slave, one man of society and letters, one soldier emperor: and they all shared the same philosophy of life. They all were Stoics. What philosophy could appeal to such a diverse collection of people, informing the lives of slaves and emperors alike? And could it be that such a flexible philosophy might also help us make sense of our own lives today?
Being in control
Everything that happens to you is either in your control to change or not.
This is the first important insight of Stoicism. If you miss the bus, then you should realise that this was in your control: you could have got up earlier and then you wouldn’t have missed it. If you fail an exam, you could have learned more for it, and then you wouldn’t have failed. For things that are in your control, the way to become happier is to actually take control of them, do what is necessary to get them right.
Everything that happens to you is either in your control to change or not.
But what about things that are not in your control? You get a cold. You come to your office late because the bus (which you caught on time) broke down. You lose all your money in a financial crisis. Your boyfriend intends to leave you. How can you cope with events that are out of your control?
Of course, the first thing to do is to realise that you have no control. Trying to control what you cannot is surely going to make you miserable. You cannot force your boyfriend to love you. You cannot change the fact that you lost your money. You cannot change the weather. Even getting upset about such things is irrational and self-harming. There’s no point in that. So the first important skill for happiness is to be able to distinguish what you have control over, from what you don’t. Trying to control what you cannot is silly. Giving up control over what you can control is also giving up chances to more happiness. Where you could have changed things, you should have done so, or you will be unhappy without good reason.
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What Is a Stoic Person?
A Stoic is an adherent of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of life. Stoics thought that, in order to be happy, we must learn to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot.
But how to distinguish between what you can and what you can’t control? This is a vital skill, and it needs to be practised. It also gets better when you have more knowledge about the world and how it works. Can we influence the weather? Can I influence my boyfriend to stay? What exactly are my options? Often, we are mistaken or deluded about our own affairs. Seeing clearly your own abilities and how you fit into your life is vital to judging your own powers and the control you have over the world. You need to get rid of dreams and illusions that deceive you, see the world as it is, and then recognise clearly which parts of it you can control and which you cannot.
This is the ultimate goal of Stoic science. The Stoics had a keen interest in nature and its workings, but the knowledge of nature was not seen as valuable in itself, as it is in our modern understanding of science.
The Stoics distinguished between “physics,” “logic” and “ethics,” but these words had different meanings from what we understand today. “Physics” was roughly the knowledge of how nature works, and would have included astronomy, biology and even theology. “Logic” was the study of correct thinking: of understanding and identifying one’s values, of avoiding fallacies and bad arguments, of understanding the logic of language and the laws of thought, so that one can put forth strong arguments and avoid invalid and fallacious thinking. And “ethics” was the core discipline of living one’s life following the laws of nature, performing one’s duties, and manifesting one’s virtues in everyday life.
The Stoics distinguished between “physics,” “logic” and “ethics,” but these words had different meanings from what we understand today.
It is easy to see how these work together. If one wants to avoid unhappiness, one needs to be able to understand how the processes in nature work, that is, one needs to understand “physics”. If one does not understand the workings of sex and pregnancy, then one will not be able to engage in effective family planning. If one does not understand one’s own psychology sufficiently, one will fall prey to materialism, cravings, addictions and other afflictions of the mind. If one wants to exercise the maximum possible control over one’s surroundings, one needs to have the best possible knowledge, the most accurate understanding of how these surroundings work and what laws they obey.
The same applies to “logic”. Without an understanding of fallacies, of good and bad arguments, of deduction, induction and probability, and of the basic laws of language and thought, one is likely to fall into all sorts of traps while trying to argue for a point or clarify one’s thoughts on some issue. Being able to think correctly and to structure one’s thoughts is necessary for a life in which we are in control of both our surroundings and our inner states of mind.
Things outside our control
So what about the things you cannot control? Take an example: you try to sleep, but outside your window, workers are tearing up the street with their drills and jackhammers. What can you do? Well, first you could try to exercise some control. Call the police, if it’s night. Go somewhere else to sleep. Stick plugs into your ears.
Assuming all these don’t work, and you are still unable to sleep, and you have no control over the thing that takes away your sleep. What can you do?
Consider, the Stoics say, that this sound will not be unpleasant to everyone. There will always be people to whom the drilling will be a welcome sound: the manufacturer of the drill, who is reminded of the success of his company. The engineer who made the drill, and who would try to judge from the sound whether the drill is operating as it should or not. The man who ordered the street to be rebuilt, because the city council wants to install a new lamp that will not shine its light into the windows of the neighbouring house. The occupants of that house, who now finally will be able to sleep in the night without being blinded by the light.
There will always be people to whom the drilling will be a welcome sound: the manufacturer of the drill, for instance, who is reminded of the success of his company.
If so many people can actually be happy about that sound, then nothing can be wrong about the sound itself. What makes the sound unpleasant to you is not the sound, but your own attitude towards that sound: your rejection of it.
But could you judge the sound differently? How would you do that?
Close your eyes, and try to really listen to it. What kind of engine is driving the drill? Is it a petrol engine, like a motorbike’s? Or is it an electric drill? How fast does it drill? Do you hear only the drill, or also the pavement splintering? Do different stones make different sounds when they break apart? How long can workers drill until they take a break? When they do take a break, is it because of the worker who needs a rest, or does the drill need to cool down?
Imagine you want to write a story about a worker like that: take a piece of paper and start taking notes: how does he work exactly? How long are the drilling phases? How long the breaks? Who moves away the rubble from the drilling site? The same worker or another? Do they remove the rubble while the first is still breaking up the pavement, or does the drilling stop so that the others can come and clear up? Do the workers communicate while they work? They cannot talk, sure, but do they look at each other? Do they wink? Do they make jokes? Do they use sign language? Do they have other ways to communicate despite the constant noise? Can you decipher their signs just by looking at them out of your window?
The freedom of the mind
And suddenly you realise that the drilling is not annoying any more: it’s interesting. It’s a unique experience that allows you to learn something about the lives of strangers you will never meet, about the way these workers talk and relate to each other. About their humour perhaps, or how they trust each other, or how they stay sane during a long day of breaking up pavements.
You can learn about the different types of drills, about how street-lamps are installed, about how the whole infrastructure of your city works, upon which you rely every single day, but which you never consciously see and acknowledge.
So this is the second Stoic trick: If you cannot control an external event, you can still control your mental reaction to it. There is nothing that could ever force you to perceive the drill as unpleasant. You do it, usually, but you don’t have to. In the end, your mind is free. Your mind is not the event, not the drill. Your mind is what makes up its own, free reaction to the drilling. And this can be a reaction of interest and fascination as easily as it can be a reaction of annoyance and anger.
What happens inside your mind is always your choice, not the world’s.
The world, the Stoic realises, does all kinds of things to us that we don’t like. It confronts us with stupid, annoying, sad, crushing, disastrous events. But the reach of the world stops at the border of our senses. Beyond that, it cannot enter.
What happens inside your mind is always your choice, not the world’s. An event is what it is, but it is always distinct from the thoughts you create in response to that event. Your thoughts are free, and it is always in your control to choose to have interesting, positive, inquiring, loving thoughts about events that you cannot change, instead of destructive thoughts and annoyed reactions.
According to that core Stoic belief, you are in control of your own mind, so seize that control and use it to transform your own reaction to the universe. Use it to make your own universe a better place. This is always in your power, and no one can ever take this ability away from you.