The Stoic Mom had the chance to speak with Donald Robertson, author, trainer, and psycho therapist, and creator of courses on Stoicism including How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Crash Course in Stoicism, Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training. Here’s the first part of that enlightening conversation on Stoic thinking, and how it can help us handle our fears and focus on what really matters. (Watch for part two of this conversation soon!)
Q: Philosophy helps us think about meaning and purpose. What does Stoic philosophy say about the purpose of human life? What should we be focused on?
A: The Stoic goal of life is “living in agreement with nature.” It’s attributed to Zeno, Stoicism’s founder, and Marcus Aurelius is still talking about that 500 years later. It’s a constant. The Greek words used have other translations, like living in accord with virtue or living wisely.
What does that mean in practice? They believed that the essence of human nature was reasoning and thinking. We use language. That distinguishes us from animals. And since we can think and use language, we have a duty to use it properly.
In other words: Nature’s handed this gift to you, and it is the greatest gift of nature. We should use it to its fill.
We can think—but most of us think badly and irrationally. Nature has left us half finished, and we should complete the circle. We have the tools, we should pick up tools and use them. To reason well is to attain wisdom.
Q: What does this “agreement with nature” actually look like? I’m often stressed and worried about my kids, my family, my community, my work, and larger events in the world. Can people live in better harmony with themselves and others by pursuing Stoicism? And can Stoic thinking help its followers reach a state of tranquility?
A: We can live in harmony with our own nature by consistently reasoning well. That’s being authentic and true to ourselves. We also need to try to live in harmony with external events. At the level of society, we live with our fellow citizens—and we can try to live in harmony with rest of humanity. One of the philosophers’ goals was to reconcile people who are arguing, for instance. Socrates was really good at introducing people to new friends, forming healthy relationships among friends.
In terms of the question of tranquility, it’s not so much how you feel that matters—it is the state of health that your mind is in. A wise person who is flourishing, whose mind is excellent, will probably be tranquil, but it’s kind of a side effect.
The problem with making tranquility your goal is that you could just take tranquilizers. You could avoid stressful situations. Psychologists would call that avoidance and withdrawal.
Ancient Stoics would disagree with avoiding things. Zeno was engaged with advising politicians and believed you should engage with public life. Stoics also said you should marry and have kids, even if it can be stressful—it’s part of nature.
In fact, in modern psychology in past 15 years or so, we now think that many traditional self-help techniques are subtle forms of avoidance. People instinctively do things to help themselves that involve avoiding upsetting feelings, like visualization or breathing exercises. But research shows that being able to ride out and tolerate those feelings is more healthy. You can learn to accept the feelings.
Q: Do Stoic thinkers expect us to be perfectly calm in all situations? Do they talk about how feelings, for example of anxiety and worry, affect people?
A: The ancient Stoics recognized that all people have involuntary feelings. A wise Stoic might shake, turn pale, and sweat in a scary situation. It is what happens next that counts.
One Stoic writer tells the story of a philosopher on a ship during an awful storm. It’s scary. When he gets ashore, others say to him, why were you shaking and turning white? He says, those were involuntary reactions. But what matters is that I recovered my composure afterwards. I’m not a brain in a vat.
In fact, it’s impossible to feel courage without feeling anxiety. You can’t have that virtue unless you experience these involuntary first movements. Being in a frightening situation is an opportunity to exercise bravery.
Q: Do the Stoic thinkers offer specific techniques for combatting our negative emotions? How can we build our own reason and wisdom?
A: Yes. They practiced the “premeditation of adversity.” In modern psychotherapy, we would call it imaginal exposure. You try to habituate yourself to frightening things. If you can do this successfully, your anxiety is more or less extinguished.
Ancient Stoics practiced imagining exile, poverty, betrayal, and their own death. That’s the most robust advice they give, but it’s difficult to do on your own, without a psychotherapist or mentor.
They don’t say how long to spend on it. If you don’t wait long enough for habituation to happen, you could actually sensitize yourself. You can look at modern psychology to understand this. It works better if you do this for longer period, say at least 15 minutes at a time. It feels boring. But that feeling of boredom is habituation happening. It requires patience.
A second technique is the “view from above.” You try to imagine situations in the broader context of space and time.
So if you meet a person who upsets you, you might think of that person as a child, or when they get older, to see it as just one slice of their whole life. This moderates your emotional response. And maybe you’ll start to understand that other person—as determined by the past, for example.
You could also imagine you are floating up in the sky seeing events below. It is not blotting out and avoiding them, but plugging them into a broader context. To be rational, in ideal world, we’d see everything in context. In the ancient world, people believed that Zeus could do this.
It is impossible for humans; we just see slices. and our reaction is amplified. But we can use our imaginations.
More of my interview with Donald Robertson—on parenting, Stoic women, and handling anger—coming soon.
Do you have any burning questions about Stoicism? Post them here as comments!
“Let the goddess within you be in charge of a person who is mature, womanly, strong, brave, a leader, a ruler.… In brief, you must hold yourself upright, not be held upright.”
- Adaptation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Part 5
Here is an uplifting thought: that we, as people, women and men, parents, and citizens can derive strength, energy, and--above all--reason from within ourselves.
Where exactly does this goodness spring from? From part of us that Roman emperor and Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius calls “the god within," and sometimes refers to as an inner genius or guardian spirit.
I’ve been studying Marcus’ Meditations, and this element stands out over numerous pages. Although it’s unclear whether Marcus believed in a single, powerful deity, or in pantheistic gods, or thought it was impossible to know the nature of the spiritual realm, it does seem that he held fast to the notion of a divine spark within us all.
This piece of ourselves is the source of our reason and intelligence as humans. And it is that which we must preserve by following philosophy and living a good life.
It's not easy. Modern Americans are struggling with the many pressures inherent in a highly individualistic and judgmental culture, the swirling mess of work, home, housework, family, politics, finances, and an increasingly self-absorbed and self-indulgent society that seems more likely to alienate and embitter people than to care for them.
From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, I often see precious little community and pitching in for the polis; it’s a very “I got mine” vibe. I am guilty of being overworked and overcommitted, too, and lacking time and energy to take on more. I worry about my kids seeing so much self-centered behavior. The bright spot for them is that their school environments are one potential source for coming together, and I've found a handful of good friends in the parent community here (supportive for me and potential role models for children).
The question is: Can you be strong and self-sufficient without being cut off from other people? Can you cultivate that wisdom and logic within, share it, and use it to participate for the good in your community and world?
And can we teach this to our children?
I do not have a certain answer now, and I am seeking one actively. There are some rays of hope. I know that both my daughters want to pursue “take action” projects in our area with the girls in their Girl Scout troops. I’m waiting expectantly to find out what that means. Can they channel their energy into something useful and create change?
As for me, I’m engaging in helping my friends and fellow humans with their lives and issues, my colleagues with collaborations on innovative, creative work, and my world with supporting causes I care about. My company offers matching grants and I have recently been busy directing donations to local, national, and international efforts I want to advance.
But much more needs to be done. Spreading ideas inspired by this philosophy and the primacy of truth, justice, and service could help. My younger daughter serves as an example. She has started the school year strong, working to form a "stop stereotypes" club with a handful of other students. These fourth graders don't like kids getting pegged by gender, and they want to see change within classrooms and on the playground, as well as in the wider world. (I was disappointed, though, when her school principal declined to meet with the group, despite their hope to be taken seriously on the highest level available to them.)
Her enthusiasm is inspiring. We could all learn to do more, and to grow in wisdom and leadership, propelled by our inner spark.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.