Challenge: Practicing Stoicism

JODIE RAMODIEN | REGULARS



For our first issue of the year our Regulars Editor Harry undertook a 30-day yoga challenge, guided by Adrienne, a popular yoga teacher on YouTube. For our second issue we deprived Harry of caffeine for a week, meaning he had to go without his usual Matcha Green Tea Iced Latte from Starbucks—the horror. For this issue Harry’s taking a break and won’t be forced to do physical activity or have to give up his favourite beverage. Instead, I’ll be undertaking a philosophical challenge, and will be applying the fundamentals of Stoicism to my life for a week.


I discovered this ancient philosophy in my first year of uni in a loosely structured unit where my tutor only turned up to class around half the time. When he did grace us with his presence we’d sit in a circular formation and discuss large grandiose ideas, Epicurean monks, Aristotelian ethics, moral law, Utilitarianism, and how to live a good life according to ancient Greek and Roman ethics. We didn’t solely discuss Stoicism, that was only a portion of the course, but Stoicism was the philosophy that struck a chord with me. The stoics seemed unshakable, fortified by their guiding principles, and in complete control of their emotions. My first year of uni was a tumultuous time filled with constant change, and the stoics provided clear instructions on how they believed we should deal with change. In his book The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton notes that “at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.” In its most simplified form, Stoicism essentially just tells you this: never get your hopes up. It’s fatalistic sure, but thinking this way helped me relinquish some of the built-up stress I had about the things out of my control.


Knowing what the philosophy is and actually holistically applying it to my life has been something I’ve never been able to achieve. The key figures and practitioners of Stoicism include its founder Zeno of Citium, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, and even these figures faced difficulty in applying its principles. Nietzsche reflected that “The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.” I decided to undertake this challenge because of Dr. David Bronstein, a lecturer at UNSW who taught a course over this past summer that did force students to actually apply the stoic principles to their lives, at odds with this Nietzschean sentiment. Bronstein organised for his students to complete “Stoic Week” whereby the days were segmented to cover an array of stoic concepts and ethics. The week plan will go as follows:

Monday—Living according to nature.

Tuesday—cultivating indifference.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—considering the stoic concept of fate.

Saturday—expanding your circle of affinity.

Sunday—contemplating your own death—I’ll also be working at my retail job this day so this should be interesting.


Living According To Nature


This first stoic principle isn’t what you’d expect it to be. “Living in accordance with nature” in a stoic context means adhering to our inborn “rational element” and the “universal reason” that separates us from other animals. It involves training oneself and one's mind to only need the necessities, “plain food, water, basic clothing and shelter.” Seneca, senator and advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero became immensely wealthy at one point during his life. Robin Campbell, who translated Seneca’s letters, notes that when criticised for his wealth, Seneca’s rebuttal was that “What counts, he says, is one’s attitude to wealth, which is the wise man’s servant and the fool’s master; he, like any good Stoic, could lose all he had at any moment without being a whit less happy.”


For me personally, I can see things from both a rational and emotional angle, and sometimes still feel tempted to go with the emotional reaction over the rational one. Nothing insane happened on Monday that really tested me. When things happen that do test me, I tend to give things a day or even a week before deciding what action to take.


Cultivating Indifference


“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn't a search for meaning. It's to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you'll be dead.” That’s not a quote from a famous Stoic, but rather is by an animated Labrador Retriever called Mr. Peanutbutter from the Netflix series Bojack Horseman. If you’re into existential nihilism then I highly recommend that show. Rather than distracting themselves from painful events until their ultimate demise, the Stoics believe that “there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” They’re all about self-discipline and focussing on our reaction to the world rather than the world itself. Campbell surmises that this “enables a man to be ‘self-sufficient,’ immune to suffering,” and “superior to the wounds and upsets of life (often personalised as Fortuna, the goddess of fortune).” On this day Bronstein got his students to give something up for a day.


Following the same path as one of his students, I chose to give up my earphones, which are a luxury rather than a necessity. I’m an overthinker and I listen to podcasts to fill the quiet moments during the day when I’d otherwise be agonising over something or another. I listen to podcasts when I’m getting ready in the morning, when I’m driving somewhere, walking somewhere, folding laundry, and occasionally before I fall asleep. Removing this crutch left me completely alone with my thoughts. It wasn’t terrible. My thoughts didn’t eat me alive or send me into a chasm of despair. Really, I think the point of the exercise was to remind us to pare back to just those necessities, and to remind us that’s all we really need.


Considering The Stoic Concept Of Fate


The Stoics believe that everything is predestined and that we should learn how to accept our fate. They encourage consideration of the things that can and cannot be controlled and value the power of choice in matters where our actions can instigate change. Bronstein stipulates that “The crucial idea here for the stoics is that the only thing truly within my control are my choices, my decisions, my intentions, my mind.” When making a decision the stoics believe we should not “assent to our impressions.” To give an example, the stoic Epictetus believes that “Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.”


Following this stoic principle was one of the easier ones for me. While I don’t believe things are fated in the same way the stoics do, I do believe in their way of dealing with everything life throws at you. I love when British people say “it is what it is,” because it’s a way of accepting things exactly as they are, not as you wish them to be. Applying this aspect of the philosophy to my life was helpful as rather than focussing on the stress associated with ‘bad’ situations or problems that arose throughout my week, I instead just focused on what my role was in the situation and what action I needed to take.


Expanding Your Circle Of Affinity


The idea of expanding your circle of affinity involves treating every other human being that you come into contact with as a “co-equal citizen of the cosmopolis.” This means treating strangers as though they were as close as family.


This one was hard for me to wrap my head around. I treat strangers with politeness, respectfulness, and empathy, but I don’t treat them like family. It felt impossible to replicate that kind of familial bond, which begins at birth and is strengthened through the decades, and then apply that to somebody I just met. The plan was to spend this Saturday going to the Sydney Writers’ Festival with a friend but she cancelled and I ended up sipping coffee and watching surfers ride the waves at the beach with my Mum. Spending the day with the person I’ve known since I was a fetus probably doesn’t count towards “expanding my circle.” My takeaway here is that I failed this aspect of the course. My other takeaway is that now that I’ve identified this failing I can strive to do better moving forward.


Contemplating Your Own Death


Seneca writes in his letters about the importance of spending the time we have wisely. A part of the criteria for this day was to make a time-use chart which tracked the day’s activities. The purpose of the activity was for the students to think about how they used the time they had for that one day.


On this day I worked from 9:45am-6:15pm, open to close, at my retail job. Sundays in retail can go one of two ways. Either customers happen to collectively decide to stay home and relax before the new work week, or everyone manically decides they need to shop, and they need to shop now or the world will implode. This Sunday it was the latter situation. There was no need to create a time chart for this day because in retail this is done for you. You can see exactly what you sold and how much of it you sold per hour. Between taking inventory, replenishing stock, and serving customers, I didn’t give much thought to contemplating my own inevitable death. After my shift I was exhausted but I felt that it was overall a good way to spend my time because I realised I love being busy.


Eudaimonia


So what was the point of undertaking this challenge? To the stoics the end goal is to achieve “Eudaimonia,” which means “to flourish.” I found that the enforced introspection ultimately improved my mental state overall and made me think more logically about my actions and emotions. While being the perfect stoic is practically impossible, following their principles helped me better equip myself for handling unforeseen events and taught me to simply just take things, as they come, in my stride.