Epictetus, an ancient Stoic sage, taught: “it’s not the events that upset us, but our judgments about the events.” What does it mean and is it applicable for our contemporary way of seeing the world and other people?
The Stoic Attitude Today
The word ‘Stoic’ doesn’t mean anything old-fashioned and unpractical. It’s amazing that their ideas serve us today in so many ways. Many contemporary mental-health guides and coach practices refer to them. How so? Well, ask a prosperous businessman about the reason for his or her accomplishments. The perseverance and patience will be the top factors. Ask an experienced psychologist about having the good life. She will talk about your work on keeping a well-balanced mind. Ask a sport coach what you need to reach the aim in any discipline. You will hear that toughness is a good start. Exactly these things the Stoics had in mind. It’s not so important that they lived in a different historical and cultural context. Like us, they wanted to live the good and happy life.
The Stoic Attitude as Fortitude
The word ‘fortitude’ has many meanings. In most cases, it means the endurance in the face of adverse circumstances. It involves two sides. The internal side, which is your determination and strength. Your ‘strong character’ as we would call it today. And the external side, which means the affairs that you deal with. You don’t have much influence on these affairs. In short, you need a strong internal character to cope with the external problems. What exactly we are talking about? There have been many definitions of fortitude. I like the definition that Cicero proposed long time ago. Cicero admired the Stoic philosophers. Although he was not a Stoic in the strict sense, he articulated many Stoical ideas in a clear way. For him, fortitude is: “the indifference to toil and pain” (De Officiis, book 3, #117). This definition shows what the proper Stoics had in mind. Both avoiding the externals or going through them needs a strong attitude. You must have the internal power not to give up the realization of your aims when you meet challenges.
The Stoic Attitude as Converting Disadvantages into Advantages
Let’s take this quote from Marcus Aurelius. He is one of the most famous Stoics. In his Reflections (V, 20) we can read: The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” It means, that in a skilful way, we can accommodate to the conditions that a given situation imposes on us. Weather is a trivial example, but a good one. I don’t mean catastrophic disasters, more and more frequent in the time of climate change. I mean our daily dealing with weather. If you are smart, you can convert a severe weather (snow) into a great fun (skiing). Exactly this. Instead of fearing or complaining, convert given weather conditions into your advantage. It’s wise and healthy. Public opinion can be another example. People say bad things about you? Instead of feeling depression, try to think that it can be very informative. For example, a bad opinion, like a mirror, can inform you about how you look in the eyes of others. You can use it for some aims: stop repeating some mistakes or stimulate to work even harder against the bad opinion, if you think it’s stupid.
The Stoic Attitude as Limiting Complaining
From the Stoical perspective, complaining means the lack of fortitude. In most cases, complaining means that the complainer hasn’t the internal strength to overcome the obstruction she has to face. The fortitude to deal with the things that we should do anyway. Complaining means also that we treat externals in a serious way. We emotionally rely on external things on which we have not any control. And one more reason. The lack of knowledge and skills as to how to overcome the problems. In all cases, the Stoics would recommend a hard work over yourself rather than lamenting and complaining.
Take something to write (or to record your words) and put down the reasons why you got angry, irritated or nervous. It would be good to do it just after you quiet down. Don’t wait for violent quarrels, just recognize and notice each and every irritation you had recently (perhaps in recent hours). Then, think if they would or wouldn’t have taken place, if you had a stronger character, a Stoic fortitude…..
I have a 25 year-long professional experience. It’s mostly as a university professor, but also includes coaching, consulting, and teaching. 35 years of karate as a hobby and the best way of learning self-discipline.