Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Joys of Stoicism - and More

When you have finished a glass of beer, there is no use crying about it. Think positive, dig your wallet out and buy another one. If the wallet is empty, don't get cranky; go home. That's what a stoic would tell you.

A 'sound' fellow, Peter Jones, a Professor by rank, dropped by for a swift half and told us about stoicism. He writes occasionally for the Specci.

On 21 November The Spectator is hosting a discussion about addiction — disease or choice? — and how we should best treat it.  
This neatly coincides with ‘Live like a Stoic’ week (25 November–1 December), which culminates in academics and doctors discussing how far problems of everyday life can be solved by the Stoic practice of thinking rationally about them — in modern parlance ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ — rather than by expensive medical intervention.
Stoicism was invented by Zeno, a Greek from Citium in Cyprus. In about 301 bc, he began teaching in one of Athens’ covered walkways (a stoa, whence ‘stoicism’).  
His work was to influence two thinkers in particular: Epictetus (c. ad 50–135), a Greek who started life as a slave and ended up leading a famous school of philosophy, consulted (we are told) by the emperor Hadrian; and the ancient world’s most famous doctor, Galen (c. ad 130–210).
Epictetus’s contribution was to insist that we should distinguish between what we can and what we cannot control.

We can, he insisted, control what goes on in our head — our beliefs, motives and state of mind; but we cannot control, hard though we may try, our health, property or social standing. Happiness therefore depended not on ‘externals’ like money or society, but on our thought-processes.
Think properly, control what we can control, and never come to harm. 
Hmmmmm. If only it were that easy. But then 'ease' was not so high on the Stoic agenda. And 'harm' comes from unexpected places.
Galen had a wider vision: a balance that must be maintained between e.g. food and drink, exercise, mental state and so on, and ways of helping patients to achieve this for themselves.  
Both were practical thinkers, arguing that happiness was in our own hands. Not that it was easy: both insisted that one had to work hard at it by regular, disciplined reflection and action. 
Coming soon: an Epicurean week? Not that Epicurus was all fun and frolics. He classified ‘desire’ into three categories: (i) natural and necessary, (ii) natural and unnecessary, and (iii) unnatural and unnecessary, and reckoned only (i) made you happy. Spoil-sport.
Spoil sport or not may have to wait for another post, I think.  But keep those three categories in mind for then. We will get onto other matters in a moment.

'Stoicism for Everyday Life’ will be held on Saturday 30 November in the Clore Management Centre, Birkbeck, University of London  should anyone be interested and in the vicinity. You could follow-up at:( 

Now. Moving on. Let me pull you a pint.

The issue of control goes far further of course; further than Epictetus or even the average Cognitive Behavioural Psychologist would have us think. And I should know. I have quite a bit of knowledge in that area. We live in an age where we are supposed to be, encouraged to be, indeed 'pressured' to be in control of our lives.

Our lives.

As if !

With politicians such as we have seen and do see in Gillard and Obama lying like Dickie Mint trim sheets*, control over our lives gets more and more difficult by the day.  Bosses, duties, bureaucrats, Laws, and so on all try to control us! And we strive to control pretty well everything in response.

But this bizzo of control has far greater impact than just on 'happiness' or even health. It has a marked impact on our Psyche.

There's another hark-back to Greek. Psyche is Greek for Soul. The more modern concept of 'Character' has a lot to do with our soul and stoic souls are needed in our era. Many men, in particular, are 'controlled' rather than have control. Ask any Father who has been divorced and has had his children taken from him. Suicide amongst them is higher than any other category.

Men are not 'empowered' in our society. Indeed, men are disempowered.

Being in Control is one of the mainstays of adulthood. It is fair to say that one of the most defining features of being an adult is being responsible for the (our) choices which generally determines what goes on in our lives. And of our response to the control that is exercised over us.

We have to choose all the time, between this action and that, between one way of behaving and another, and choosing our state of mind and our thoughts and feelings is crucial.

We have to consider and gauge the consequences of our choices and actions, otherwise our decisions are unconscious, 'automatic': un-adult: - like a child's.
 That can lead us into all sorts of trouble. Many woman in our society are encouraged by Feminism to disregard the consequences of their own thoughts and feelings and simply blame someone else when things go wrong.

Choice and Control are inter-dependant. We need to carefully gauge them to ensure that our Character is not distorted. 

While we like to be in control and have ourselves less anxious, less vulnerable we need to understand and know

what we can control and what we cannot.

Just as Epictetus said.

We often discriminate poorly. We often "overdo it". At great cost.

The main issue when we have a choice, is whether or not to DO something. We choose to ACT or not to Act. By 'not to act' I mean deliberately refraining,
having thought carefully about it.

This choice has a PROFOUND EFFECT on us.

There are a limited number of choices open to us and each one affects our Soul.

And we do have to choose in the context of what we can & cannot control. If we choose incorrectly, we bring much pain down on ourselves. We can destroy our balance and character.

Choose correctly and we can bring much joy and happiness into our lives.

We have, in basic terms, FOUR CHOICES.

1. Take Action on things we can Control;
2. Try to take Action on things we cannot control;
3. Take no action on things we can control; and
4. Take no Action on things we cannot Control.

Four scenarios cover pretty well every choice and action we may make and  take.

So, you might ask, as you hold your glass out for a refill, what are these 'profound effects'?

Let's look at the first option. 1.

Take Action on things we can Control.

We try. We may fail. Most everything we do in life has a 'first time' and we usually have no idea how to do it properly. We try again. We may fail again, but we get better over time. We may eventually succeed. We very often do it well enough. We some times get to do it perfectly.

Thank goodness we had very little thinking power when we were babies learning to walk. We would have given up!! Instead, we persisted, despite constantly falling over and getting hurt. We were encouraged. It was for our own good.

We achieved MASTERY.
We develop SKILLS, KNOWLEDGE, and our TALENTS.
We learn how to INFLUENCE larger things / events / people.
We are AGENTS in the world, changing things. Doing things.
We have EVIDENCE of our achievements.
We KNOW we have TRIED.
We develop HIGH  SELF- ESTEEM.
We FEEL very POSITIVE;  We feel like adults. Even children can feel "Grown-Up".

We have dug deep and found ability.

We have dug up some Raw Material with which to construct a 'Person'.

But what if we don't take action when we could? If we choose not to act on something  we can control? Because we are afraid of failing, or are lazy, or 'don't care'?

This is option 3.

We give up.

We fail to confront our difficulties. We give away our power. We lose resolve.
We fail to become competent.

And we Know it.

We may try to ignore it or pretend it isn't the case.


But we know it to be true.

We feel SHAME; GUILT. These days many in our society are told, very clearly and often that they must not be ashamed or feel guilty. It must be someone else's fault if they 'try to make you'. Mostly women are told - by feminist agitprop; and men are blamed.

Denying reality, even the reality of how we feel, brings neurosis.

Such faux-shameless and faux-guiltless people are denying themselves valuable signs that their soul is being sapped and is decaying. 

They are neurotic.

Their Character is deficient.

Under such 'self-threat, we get STRESSED. We get DEPRESSION and ANXIETY problems.

Our self esteem falls. Of course it does. Our "self" is no longer estimable !

We can even  feel CONTEMPT for ourselves.  Panic Attacks can develop. We become NEGATIVE. We BLAME. We feel Un-Adult.

This Ain't Good !!


Acting to Control what we cannot control.

Now we really get DEEP in it ! And do we ever suffer. So many of us.

We embark on UNREMITTING TOIL, trying to get the better of the many things  that are inherently uncontrollable.

That includes OTHER PEOPLE  --The most 'common' problem 'thing' in this category.


We are Ok recognizing some uncontrollable things. If we are smart we can try to INFLUENCE these things. (Go back to number 1).

But if we are unwise we STRUGGLE and CONSTANTLY FAIL, fruitlessly DEMANDING what we cannot have.

We DEMEAN the Integrity of others - and of ourselves.

Recognise anyone?

So. Should we just give up again?

No. Choice 4 is to ….. LET  GO.

It takes great strength, often, paradoxically, born out of exhaustion. We Choose to Let-Go, Understanding that this thing/Person/ event is not 'Ours' to control.

We Can-Not. Or - Should Not - or Must Not even try to control 'it', but control ourselves.

We can gain a profound sense of RELIEF.
We recognise our limitations, in common with all others.

We attain HUMILITY.

It is the final stage toward FORGIVENESS  &  HEALING.

S0, you might wonder, what can we control? How do we become 'Stoics'?

We can choose to Start with OURSELVES.

We are close to home, after all.  We are important to us. We need us.
We want the best for ourselves and who better to provide for us than ourselves.
We deserve our own efforts. We deserve our own time and attention.
We deserve our own self-Knowledge, Respect and Understanding.

These are the main features of LOVE.

If I am acting to control myself, YOU don't have to worry yourself about controlling me, for me, or for yourself. I would resist you anyway. But why would I want to resist myself?

I would happily pull a Pint for you and for me though. As I do.

We can control our own lives, taking responsibility for what we do.

We can Attend INWARDS. We can control our emotions, choosing them, restraining and directing them, for our benefit and the benefit of others.

We can examine our own thinking, eradicating distortions and base beliefs (what we 'live our life by') on some evidence or educated Faith rather than 'wants'.

We can Attend OUTWARDS. We can LISTEN to other people more often. Talk less. We can attempt to understand others;  act with more kindness.

If you think that exercising so much control over ourselves is too hard, consider this: It is much easier to focus attention and control ONE person, ourselves,
than it is to try to control others.

There are 7,000,000,000 others.


Grant me the Serenity to Accept the things I cannot change;
The Courage to Change  the things I can change;
And The Wisdom to Know  the Difference.
It makes a strong and healthy Soul.

Oh. Nearly forgot. That asterisk.
* Dickie Mint was an Air Loadmaster ( a Loadie) and responsible for ensuring that aircraft were loaded in such a manner that the aircraft was 'balanced', with weight distributed evenly.  In Aviator terms this is 'Trim'.  Loadies have a Trim Sheet - a diagram showing where all the different weights are placed.
Dickie Mint's trim sheets bore no resemblance to reality.
Pax Dei.


  1. It's been said before?
    Is that little mantra traditionally addressed to anyone in particular?
    (Oh yes, I know it well.)


    1. Anyone in particular?, you ask. Do you have any one or any group in mind?

    2. No, no one person.


  2. Well, the stoic can sit and be content, and that's good for his soul...but what comes out of the urge to bring order out of chaos...has given us some of the greatest things in the world.

    Thank god Van Gogh wasn't very stoic

    Very deep thoughts Mr. Knight. Rather enjoyed that one!
    The drummer.

    1. Yes, indeedy Joyanna. We have inherited a heritage of heretics and loonies, some of whom produced some startlingly good stuff.

  3. Very interesting and informative post.

    All my life I have struggled for inner calm and peace.


  4. Keep up the struggles, m'dear. You will get there. Have a drink of Grace.

  5. 1. Take Action on things we can Control;
    2. Try to take Action on things we cannot control;
    3. Take no action on things we can control; and/or
    4. Take no Action on hings we cannot Control.

    Getting awfully close to Donald's known-knowns and known-unknowns - like it.


Ne meias in stragulo aut pueros circummittam.

Our Bouncer is a gentleman of muscle and guile. His patience has limits. He will check you at the door.

The Tavern gets rowdy visitors from time to time. Some are brain dead and some soul dead. They attack customers and the bar staff and piss on the carpets. Those people will not be allowed in anymore. So... Be Nice..