Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual by Ward Farnsworth. If you are interested in more detailed notes from this book, they are available here.
A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.
“See more clearly, live more wisely, and bear the burdens of this life with greater ease―here are the greatest insights of the Stoics, in their own words. Presented in twelve lessons, Ward Farnsworth systematically presents the heart of Stoic philosophy accompanied by commentary that is clear and concise.”
Happiness & Externals
The Stoics believe that the ability to reason is a gift that sets humans apart from animals and therefore, the key to the purpose of human life is centered around reason. If a person lives a life guided by reason and in service to others, then that person has lived a virtuous life. They believe this is the right and natural way to live. Like many others, the Stoics believed that happiness couldn’t be pursued directly, but that it was an incidental result of someone living a virtuous life.
The Stoics repeatedly emphasize the idea that we spend a lot of time and energy focused on things we can’t control and are barely aware of the things that are within our control. If we can become more aware of our thoughts and gain the ability to control and manage them, we would be more peaceful. A lot of misery is created when we focus on things beyond our control. Stoics call these things “externals.” These are things which gain meaning from the ways they are consumed by the mind. One of the Stoic’s main goals is to make reason the basis for one’s choices, actions, and sense of equilibrium while maintaining detachment from externals.
Judgement and Perspective
The Stoics propose two primary strategies to handle these externals. The first is to use reason to analyze an external and view its true nature. The Stoics believe that our experience of the world depends on our judgements about externals rather than on the externals themselves. We don’t react to the externals themselves, we react to our thoughts about them. We can’t control the externals but we can control our judgements and opinions about them. The Stoics seek to first become aware of them, then analyze them to find the irrationality in them.
The second strategy to handle externals is to change perspective. By looking at the world from a different point of view, we can change how we see it. They intend to find the most useful point of view for analyzing anything that happens. Stoics also believe that the ability to look at life from different perspectives and noticing how small our affairs look in the grand scheme of things encourages humility and virtue. By recognizing our general insignificance, it reinforces the idea that we should focus on living well in the present moment.
Common Failings of Desire, Wealth, and Envy
The Stoics believe that a large amount of our unhappiness is driven by the ways we relate to desires and fears about the future, and to pleasures and pains in the present. We talk to ourselves about our desires in ways that are misleading and result in misery. They identify several common examples where our desires lead us astray.
We often desire the things that we do not or cannot have. If we can possess something we desire, the pursuit of it is more pleasing than the possession of it. Once we have it, we become familiar with it, leading to indifference or disgust. This often makes us want more. It makes us value all sorts of things more highly than they are worth. In general, we overrate pleasures and underrate the cost of trying to gain them. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman refers to this as the focusing illusion which he claims is a significant source of miswanting. The focusing illusion creates a bias in favor of goods and experiences that are initially exciting, even if they will eventually lose their appeal. This makes us susceptible to exaggerating the impact of purchases or a change in circumstances on our future well being.
Another failing the Stoics point out is that we compare what we have or what we want to the holdings of others. They mention that it’s trivial to find someone who is ahead of us or has more than us and those are the comparisons we focus on. As Seneca writes,
“No man when he views the lot of others is content with his own. This is why we grow angry even at the gods, because some person is ahead of us, forgetting how many men there are behind us, and how huge a mass of envy follows at the back of him who envies but a few.”
Similarly, the Stoics believe we overrate the opinions of others and overvalue ourselves. We overlook faults in ourselves but find them easily in those around us. Schopenhauer thought that we have trouble seeing our vices because we live in the midst of them. Instead, our criticisms of others provide an unintentional glimpse at what is ugliest within us.
The Stoics have some recommendations for managing our desires. One set of strategies involves a change of perspective to detach from externals. They recommend making the following comparisons and considerations to help manage desires:
- Comparisons to people and circumstances from the past
- Comparisons to others who have been in the same boat can likewise be productive.
- Comparisons to those in the present who are worse off than oneself.
- Consider how desirable the goods we have would seem if they were absent.
- When comparing ourselves to others, consider if we would accept an offer to pay what they did to get what they have.
They also discuss moderation. In their view, moderation is a way to enjoy something without the negative consequences that come with excess.
Lastly, they instruct us to learn to be happy with less. We fail to appreciate some things because they are too familiar. We overreact to others because they aren’t familiar enough.
An Awareness of the Present
The Stoics also believe we undervalue the present, and time generally, at our own expense. They teach use to be more appreciative of the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or the future. They consider time focused on memories, hopes, and fears to be ill-spent. We continually overlook the present because we are too concerned about the future. When the future arrives, we continue to overlook it. The Stoics argue that the past and future are harder to bear and that the present is always tolerable. The present is the only place where living occurs. By focusing on the past or future, we fail to pay attention to the present, and therefore fail to live.
Stoics also regard us as unconscious of the value of time generally. We tend to give it away lightly, waste it with less alarm than we waste money, though time is more valuable in the end.