Stoicism—Dealing with Uncertainty
Episode #6 of the course What is wisdom: An introduction to philosophy by Will Buckingham
Stoicism, the philosophical school that we are looking at today, has recently had something of a revival. The central idea in Stoicism is that the main reason we live unwisely is that we misunderstand the nature of the world, so our thoughts and desires are out of line with the way the world is. What we need to do is fully understand how the world works (Stoicism is concerned with what we know) and then make sure that our way of relating to the world is in line with this (Stoicism is also about what we do).
The Origins of Stoicism
Stoicism was founded by a philosopher called Zeno of Citium, who lived in the 4th century BCE. After a shipwreck, he was stuck in Athens and became interested in philosophy. Eventually, he set up his school at the Stoa Poikile, or “painted porch,” in the city, hence the name Stoicism.
Logic, Physics, and Ethics
Stoicism has 3 principles. The 1st is logic, in this case meaning the study of reasoning. The Stoics were one of the 1st groups of philosophers in the West to seriously engage with questions of what it might mean to reason clearly. The 2nd pillar of Stoicism is physics, meaning the study of nature and of how the universe works. Through reasoning, we can understand the nature of the universe of which we are a part. But there is a 3rd aspect to Stoic wisdom, and that is ethics—the question of how we should live.
Epictetus—The Slave Philosopher
Stoicism flourished in Greece and Rome for centuries. Perhaps one of the best-known Stoic philosophers is Epictetus, a Greek former slave who lived between the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. In his famous book, The Enchiridion (literally, “the manual,” or, “that which is held in the hand,” suggesting that this was a book to be used), Epictetus famously said: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” For Epictetus, if we thoroughly analyze the world of which we are a part, we will see that the things that are up to us are relatively few: our beliefs, our thoughts, our desires, and our actions. Everything else—our property, our fame or dishonor, political events, even our bodies—is, at least to some extent, beyond our control. For Epictetus, freedom comes from focusing on the things that are in our control. Even if we are a slave, it is possible to experience a kind of freedom.
Adapting to Uncertainty
The world is an uncertain and unpredictable place. We cannot be sure that things will go well for us. But we can develop the skills to understand this uncertainty better and to change our responses to the uncertainty of the world. We can do this by using various methods of mental training to help us see the world more clearly and to change our responses to it. In 1 example, Epictetus says that if you go to the bathhouse, you will find that people jostle, splash, and steal things. You can either get upset by this or remind yourself that this is what happens in the bathhouse. Then, when you are having your bath, you are not disturbed, because you understand that this is simply a necessary part of that world.
A Dog Tied to a Cart
Stoicism tells us that wisdom lies in seeing that we have relatively little power over the course of things in the world but rather a lot of power over our own responses. There is a famous Stoic image that sums this up. Imagine that you are a dog tied to a cart, and the cart is rolling along the road. You have no choice when it comes to your destination. But you can choose your response to this predicament—you can either drag your paws, or you can trot along happily behind.
In the next few lessons, we’re going to move away from Western philosophy to explore perspectives from Confucianism, Daoism (sometimes written “Taoism”), and Buddhism.
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