Philosophy: Not Just for Pretentious Ivy Leaguers
In this post, we’re going to deep-dive into Stoicism, a philosophical school whose ancient Greek founders codified the #DieLiving mindset long before Zeus rolled the first jug of TBNN down from Mount Olympus. We begin by defining philosophy and identifying some of the tangible benefits we can achieve by taking the time to learn and apply a few basic philosophical principles.
n 2019, the word philosophy may conjure images of Ha-vahd types engaging in abstract debate about the hypothetical existence of metaphysical reality. That image is a far cry from Stoicism’s roots and the teachings of the OG Stoics. While our modern strength and conditioning programs may be far superior to those employed by the original Olympic athletes, some would argue that the methods for building mental strength have come full-circle to the techniques taught by our ancient ancestors. During the days of Plato and Aristotle, the purpose of philosophy was to help the average Joe make sense of the world and develop a framework for his life in accord with his values and goals. In short, life is messy and confusing, Philosophy can help us rationalize our experiences, and like a trusty lensatic compass, be relied upon when fancier gadgets inevitably fail to get us on target. More concretely, Stoic strategies can help treat anxiety and depression, lower cortisol levels (the natural enemy of gainz) and improve the overall quality of one’s life.
You likely already have some sort of philosophical framework in place. Have you ever stopped to think about how you use it to navigate life’s challenges? Are you a member of a specific religious denomination? There’s a philosophical framework there. Additionally, one can have specific philosophies for parenting, leadership, entrepreneurship, and so on. I am not advocating that you abandon the framework currently getting you out of bed in the morning, but Stoicism can help tie together seemingly disparate parts of one’s life into a standard template applicable to any scenario.
Stoicism: The Warrior’s Philosophy
What do Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Medal of Honor recipient Admiral James Stockdale and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis all have in common? Besides being held up as quintessential warrior-philosophers of their times, all rely/relied on the measured teachings of Stoicism to guide their thoughts and actions. Looking at the philosophy’s more well-known tenets, it’s easy to see why Stoicism is especially well-suited for the rigorous life of the warrior: Enduring suffering, high self-imposed standards and self-control are perhaps the most obvious examples. But what if I told you that by practicing Stoicism, the warriors mentioned above were unknowingly performing stress management techniques prescribed by modern psychologists, yoga gurus and meditation apps? In fact, Donald Robertson even wrote a book about the link between Stoicism and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy; The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy . We’ll come back to some of the practical uses of Stoicism and point out a few mental exercises you can start using today to combat unhealthy thought patterns and begin each day like a Stoic. But first let’s outline the basic tenets of Stoicism.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” -Marcus Aurelius
The concepts taught by Stoics are actually fairly easy to wrap your mind around, even for a Marine grunt like me. The ultimate goal of Stoicism is to provide the tools for one to live a relatively happy, virtuous and tranquil life. This does not mean a life free from suffering. Stoicism teaches us to acknowledge the suffering that is intrinsic to life and to not only cope, but thrive even under the most unpleasant circumstances.
Stoics believe that we are, by nature, social creatures and that we can find happiness primarily by contributing towards the greater good of society. Therefore, Stoicism is the philosophy of service and sacrifice. I believe this partly explains why so many veterans become nostalgic after leaving the military. It is difficult to replace the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with serving one’s country. Separation often leads to a state the Stoics called allotriôsis, which literally translates as “alienation”. Stoics also teach that when times are good, we should exercise moderation and steel ourselves to the inevitable challenges ahead. This is the essence of Stoicism, which has reemerged recently as the counter-point to the modern cultural dictate that feeling good all the time should be our goal.
Speaking personally, I EAS’d from the Marine Corps ten years ago and still find myself longing for that sense of purpose that I achieved as a 22-year-old rifle squad leader. This sense of lost purpose began to ease only as I learned to apply a Stoic outlook to my life. While the stakes are not as large, and my contribution to society is harder to quantify, the words of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus reached through the ages to help me understand that just by dragging myself out of bed every day I am playing an integral part in a grand cosmic symphony. To paraphrase a lesson from Epictetus: When feeling lost, I imagined myself as an actor in a play. It was on me to play my part to the best of my ability, no matter the role assigned. Fast-forward to today and I am married and experiencing the joys and challenges of fatherhood for the first time. Luckily, I have the Stoic principles to help guide me through my new duties as both a father and a husband.
Exercising Our Minds
It is worth reiterating the fact that Stoicism is intended to be an interactive philosophy. Much like achieving our fitness goals, it’s not enough to simply spam social media with quotes superimposed over pictures of mountain sunsets. In order to achieve the full range of benefits, it’s important to incorporate certain mental exercises into your daily life. Even Marcus Aurelius, who was the most powerful person in the world during his time, continually reminded himself of this in his book, Meditations, which is a collection of his personal journaling. He often chides himself for becoming lazy and allowing his mind to stray too far from the Stoic framework. Below are a few exercises prescribed by my three favorite Stoics (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus) which I have found to be the most useful in my daily life.
If You Don’t Mind, it Doesn’t Matter: The Stoic Perspective Shift
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” - Marcus Aurelius
This quote likely summarizes the first chapter of almost any mindfulness or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) text book. Applying this concept in real life requires one to honestly assess their own thought process by answering the following question: Is this thing that is bothering me within the realm of things I can actually control? If the answer is yes, then I can do what is within my power to fix it, which should alleviate the mental discomfort. If the answer is no (the more common answer, in my experience), then why am I expending so much mental energy worrying about it?
For example, when I feel myself becoming agitated, I will walk through the “can I control this?” equation. Maybe I’m in a crowded subway car and other passengers are encroaching on my personal space. Thinking through my predicament, I can recognize that I have three courses of action at my disposal: 1) Continue to allow myself to stew as my blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones rise and pray that I can get off the train before I have an anxiety attack, 2) Freak out and start stiff-arming people out of my way, or 3) Accept the fact that I choose to live in a busy metropolitan city, and recognize that the people crowding me don’t necessarily want to smell my armpits either. The people that choose option 1 are your proverbial “ticking time bombs”. I was that person for probably the first thirty years of my life, and trust me, it doesn’t end well. Admittedly, option 3 sounds too simple and it took me several weeks of active implementation to realize the full effects. I’ve gotten to the point now where simply having this conversation with myself creates noticeable physiological changes; I can feel my heart rate slow, my muscles loosen and my mind clear in situations that used to nearly paralyze me with anxiety.
Getting Comfortable with Being Physically Uncomfortable
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” -Seneca
Seneca’s exercise is intended to keep oneself from becoming too comfortable with their current lifestyle as it could be taken away at any moment, a truth that Seneca knew all too well. After accumulating wealth and prestige as a Roman senator, Seneca stepped on one too many powerful toes and was exiled and eventually forced to commit suicide.
If I were to literally enact Seneca’s prescribed exercise, I would throw on my rattiest pair of sweat pants, grab a sleeping bag and set up camp under some scaffolding in Midtown Manhattan. I haven’t actually done this, and quite frankly, (for a host of reasons) I don’t intend to, but there are some work arounds I’ve incorporated into my daily life. For example, simply foregoing a more expensive and better tasting meal for something simple and cheap is enough to remind me that I may not always have the means that I currently enjoy. Similar choices made throughout the day force me to question the necessity of luxuries that I have grown accustomed to (do I really need that new iPhone? What’s stopping me from walking the two miles to work?). By doing this I am mentally preparing myself for less bountiful times. I had the opportunity to test this theory last year when I found myself laid off for most of the summer, during which time I never felt deprived of any physical comfort because I never allowed those addictions to manifest in the first place.
Getting Comfortable with Being Mentally Uncomfortable
“While kissing your child goodnight, whisper to yourself ‘tomorrow you will die.” – Epictetus
Just reading (and writing!) this sentence elicits a strong emotional response. Some readers will likely be so put off by it that they question the veracity of everything they’ve read here so far. As I write this, I can feel daggers flying out of my wife’s eyes while she nurses our two-month-old next to me. I’m sure that this is exactly the type of response that Epictetus intended when he taught the concept to his pupils some 1900 years ago.
Death is just as much of a certainty today as it was in Epictetus’ time. Sure, we have access to better medicine and are educated about the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise, but eventually, you will die and so will everyone you know and love. It’s a fact that we as a society try our best to ignore. Again, I’d like to point towards the virtue of acceptance. Just like how I can’t control people on a crowded subway, I also can’t control my own mortality or those that I care about. By pretending that we can, we are only setting ourselves up to be crippled by mental anguish once reality heel-stomps our face.
**Thinking specifically about Epictetus’ example, one might say, if my child died my life would be over anyway. Maybe so, but what about your significant other, your other children, and the countless other people that rely on you in one way or another? I once knew a middle-aged woman who lost her adult son unexpectedly. She had never considered that she might outlive her son. The grief crippled her for years, to the extent that she could barely care for herself and became a drag on everyone around her. Another example: My grandmother has buried two adult sons and two husbands in her lifetime. Though she likely hasn’t read much Stoic philosophy, she has a strong Catholic faith and has been able to live a long, fulfilling life of service to her family and community.
Admittedly, nothing could ever truly prepare you for something as devastating as the loss of a close loved one, but just admitting such a thing is possible puts us in a much better position to work through the acceptance phase of grief should that day ever come. This exercise is also much more versatile than preparing for death - try imagining what life would be like if you were suddenly paraplegic. Not only does this exercise harden your mind and spirit, it also forces you to appreciate the many ways you are privileged in life.
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” – Marcus Aurelius
If you haven’t caught on by now, Stoicism is all about managing our expectations. There are few things worse than that feeling of sinking disappointment and its always better to be surprised to the upside. As Marcus notes above, we really need to remind ourselves of this every day because the sheer odds of having everything go right for us on a daily basis are minuscule. I live in Manhattan and walk right through Times Square on my way to work. If I expected to see anything other than dangerously erratic cab drivers, wide-eyed tourists, aggressive furries and mountains of garbage, I would be in for a rude surprise. The same goes for once I’m at work. My boss will undoubtedly ask me about those TPS reports, someone will reheat fish in the microwave, and my computer will crash before I can save the 1,000 row spreadsheet I’ve been working all morning. We become upset when reality fails to match our expectations, but we can alleviate these negative feelings by keeping those expectations realistic.
“Men seek retreats for themselves - in the country, by the sea, in the hills - and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself.” – Marcus Aurelius
Let me start by saying that I find meditation extremely challenging and I’m the kind of person that already spends an inordinate amount of time in my own head. The problem is, it’s usually down the rabbit hole of worst-case scenario analysis. What if I get fired? Why did I sign up for a triathlon when I’m as buoyant as a bag of hammers? Who heard me fart in the department meeting? A helpful strategy for countering these thoughts is just to acknowledge them. A simple “so what” or “then I’ll deal with it” is usually an effective response to even the most intrusive internal naggings. To me, meditation isn’t sitting cross-legged at some lakeside retreat, it’s brushing away those negative thoughts that badger me while I’m walking to grab lunch. It’s also being aware of how I feel at various points throughout the day. Once I feel my stress gauge push into the red zone, simply taking a deep breath and reminding myself of my lack of control will usually do the trick.
Dylan Nassano is a former Marine infantryman now living in New York where he works as a financial analyst. He considers riding his bike through Manhattan an extreme sport, can recite Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop from memory and would almost always rather be in the mountains.