Stoicism

How to Deal With Events

Seneca the Younger

Governor Eric Greitens resigned. Friend of the lobbyists, Mike Parson, became Missouri’s governor.  In the words of someone who knows the new governor well, Mike Parson will “sell everything that isn’t nailed down.”

For those of us who believe in limited government that doesn’t put its thumb on the scale of achievement, it’s time to panic and despair, right?

Wrong. It’s never time to panic or despair. And we know this from two of the greatest philosophers of all time, Epictetus and Seneca.

Let’s use recent events in Missouri to learn a new skill that will make your life better, shall we?

The Discipline of Desire

If you read this blog regularly, you’ve already been exposed to Epictetus’s formula for living the good life. It begins with understanding what is in your control and what is not in your control. But there’s more to it than that. First, this reminder from Epictetus.

From The Good Life Handbook by Epictetus:

To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not. What things are under your total control? What you believe, what you desire or hate, and what you are attracted to or avoid. You have complete control over these, so they are free, not subject to restraint or hindrance. They concern you because they are under your control.

The Good Life Handbook:: Epictetus’ Stoic Classic Enchiridion by Chuck Chakra… https://www.amazon.com/dp/0920219144/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_0v-eBb1EYXNMG

Pretty short list, huh? So what kinds of things are not under our control? Everything else:

Your body, property, reputation, status, and the like. Because they are not under your total control they are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, and in the power of others. They do not concern you because they are outside your control.

The Good Life Handbook:: Epictetus’ Stoic Classic Enchiridion by Chuck Chakra… https://www.amazon.com/dp/0920219144/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_0v-eBb1EYXNMG

Wait, our bodies are not under our control? What does that mean?

(Read how to be free forever through Stoicism.)

Think about it. Can you control how tall you are? Can you control whether or not you get injured in a car accident? Not really. Your control of your body is limited. The Stoics worry about things in your complete control. That’s why the list of things under our control is so short.

When I heard that Governor Greitens was prepared to resign, I offered little solace to my friends except for the Epictetus’s advice: let go of the things not under your complete control.

But how do you do that?

The best formula for letting go of things not under your control is more advice from Epictetus:

Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.

Enchiridion, 8

Sound familiar? It should.

Epictetus lived in Rome from about 55 AD to 135 AD. He was not a Christian, but he might have heard a similar tip from someone who died about 20 years before Epictetus was born:

. . . thy will be done . . . 

The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus

Remember, Stoic philosophy was not a way of thinking but a way of living. Stoicism has no room for people who speak one way and live another. Stoics believed philosophy is expressed through behavior and attitudes, not through writing and arguing. Stoic living means leaving in harmony with nature, especially human nature. As the Stoic Seneca said:

Evil does not happen to good men who don’t have evil thoughts. Jupiter shelters good men by keeping away sin, wicked thoughts, greedy schemes, blind lust and the avarice which covets another’s property. Good men release God from this care by despising externals. The good is within and good fortune is to not need good fortune.

Seneca. Mor. Es. I. De Providentia.

(Soon I will write about the differences between Stoicism and Christianity. Until then, check out this editorial on the From Rome blog.)

The key to living in harmony with nature, to avoid hinderances and frustrations is to wish for events to unfold exactly as they do. Which reminds me of a great quote from C. S. Lewis:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

*The Great Divorce*, C.S. Lewis

How to Wish Like a Stoic

The title promises “how to,” so I will offer this simple tip: memorize the Epictetus quote or the Lord’s Prayer and say it to yourself whenever you find yourself wishing or hoping for events to turn out a particular way.

Are you hoping the Cardinals win? Don’t. Hope, instead, that the game turns out as it does.

Hoping the Republicans pick up seats in Congress this November? Don’t. Hope, instead, that the election turns out as it does.

Or, as Donald Robinson notes in Stocism and the Art of Happiness:

[N]ovice Stoics should begin by training themselves each day:

  1. to endure what they irrationally fear, or find aversive, with courage and perseverance, and
  2. to renounce, to abstain from, what they irrationally crave, through discretion and self-discipline.

(Read about the perseverance of a living saint here.)

So it sounds like we should just curl up in a ball and let the world take advantage of us, right?

Wrong. 

But Keep Working

Hoping that God’s will or nature’s will be done on earth is not to say you don’t have to do anything to influence events. Stoics worked. Hard. But, like Zen masters, they worked for the sake of the work, not because they’d placed emotional bets on the outcome.

Like Epictetus, Seneca also worked to master the practices of enduring fears and renouncing irrational desires. But that didn’t stop him from tending his garden every day. Seneca didn’t wish his garden would produce healthy fruit; he worked his garden. It’s possible to do the work without expecting or hoping for an outcome.

The best men are conscripts of toil, for all good men toil and are not pulled by fortune, they only follow her and keep in step.

Seneca. Mor. Es. I. De Providentia.

Eric Greitens has left the governor’s mansion. I ache and pray for my friend and for those who worked so hard to get him elected. Praying is completely in my control. Resigning was completely in his. Helping him get elected was completely under the control of those who campaigned for him.

So, I accept the events of last week. Not because I wish for pain and confusion, but because living in harmony with nature and with God requires that we hope for events to turn out as they do, not as we wish.

Finally, if you decide to share this post with friends via email, Twitter, or Facebook, I will hope you do. But only if you do.

Author: William Hennessy

Co-founder of St. Louis Tea Party Coalition and Nationwide Chicago Tea Party Persuasive design expertLatest book: Turning On Trump: An Evolution (2016)Author of The Conservative Manifest (1993), Zen Conservatism (2009), Weaving the Roots (2011), and Fight to Evolve (2016)I believe every person deserves the dignity of meaningful work as the only path to human flourishing.

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