This is a repost with some amendments made. I’d like to say that I didn’t lose my way on the Stoic path, and I’ve recently been questioning whether I as an Autistic, ADHD, and OCD person could actually develop and progress on the Stoic path. I lost my way pretty heavily when COVID-19 started happening and seasonal depression set in. I underwent acute Autistic Burnout.
Luckily for me, someone with ADHD had already asked this of one of the greatest living Stoic philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and his response is here. The answer is yes, and perhaps more interestingly, there are many lessons of the Stoic teachers who remind us to be compassionate to oneself, and remember that the goal is unattainable for us to achieve perfect wisdom.
I have started to resume my daily practices and meditations (here this doesn’t mean meditation in the same way it’s mostly practiced – it means listening to someone give a meditation on Stoicism).
I try to live a life guided by Stoic philosophy. I practice being a Stoic by writing daily and thinking on important readings made by a whole host of Stoic philosophers; aiming to live the most virtuous life I can. I wanted to go into a bit of detail about what being a Stoic person means, and how I incorporate Stoicism into my life.
What exactly is Stoicism ?
So you will have probably come across the term stoic, and have a picture in your mind of a stoic (lowercase ‘s’) person based on the dictionary’s definition:
a) a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/stoic
Generally in popular culture today Stoicism is seen as being unemotional, or someone who doesn’t complain a lot – even when times are at their worst.
While this disposition might be an outcome of Stoic practices, it’s not the end goal of a Stoic. This ability to restrain emotion comes from the way they organise themselves, their thoughts, and practice living a virtuous life. It’s not that they don’t have emotions, but that they do not let them control them.
The main goal of all philosophers during the times of Stoicism rise was to achieve Eudaimonia (roughly translating to “eu” meaning good, “daimon” meaning spirit). Basically the goal is to live the best possible life – however the many schools of philosophy at the time had quite varied interpretations of how that could be achieved. As a Stoic I am trying to live ‘the good life’.
The main tenets of stoic living
Live in agreement with nature
The core goal in life is to live in agreement with nature… which sounds a little vague and cryptic – ( so like does that mean we have to become bush people? Forgo clothing? ). To understand what Stoics mean by this we will turn to the teachings of Epictetus:
“For what is Man? A rational animal, subject to death. At once we ask, from what does the rational element distinguish us? From wild beasts. And from what else? From sheep and the like. Look to it then that you do nothing like a wild beast, else you destroy the Man in you and fail to fulfil his promise. See that you do not act like a sheep, or else again the Man in you perishes.
You ask how we act like sheep?
When we consult the belly, or our passions, when our actions are random or dirty or inconsiderate, are we not falling away to the state of sheep? What do we destroy? The faculty of reason. When our actions are combative, mischievous, angry, and rude, do we not fall away and become wild beasts?”The Discourses of Epictetus – Chapter IX
The key concept here is that human beings are rational animals. The thing that makes us unique on Earth is our ability to reason – this is something that allows us great faculties in life such as social relationships and mental abilities – for example reading this blog!
We shouldn’t behave like beasts because we have the ability not to, we can make sense of the world around us in ways that beasts will never understand. So for a human to live in agreement with nature they have to embrace their rationality, for if we do not – then we are beasts. So to act in accordance with nature as a human – we must use our naturally given advantage and act like a human by using reason, the thing that makes us human. The goal is to apply reason in everyday life.
Living as an ADHD, Autistic, and OCD person can make this not always easy, but the goal is where capable to apply this practice.
Live by Virtue
This is the part of Stoicism that spoke to me on a hugely personal level. I have realised that there’s not much I have control over in the world around me, but I want to make sure that I live a life where each day I try to work to better myself, but more importantly the lives of others.
To stoics achieving virtue is the highest good. So what do they mean by virtue? Well, it’s pretty simple actually – if we live in accordance with our nature with us using reason to attain virtue – then we would be living the good life.
So what are virtuous traits – they had this part covered there are four cardinal virtues of according to Stoicism:
This could perhaps be best summed up as the ability to see things as they are, rather than looking for what we want them to be. Stoics were focused specifically on the ability to know what is good, bad, and indifferent. This was summed up well below:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own”Epictetus
What Epictetus is touching on here is that in order to be wise – we have to have a deep understanding of our biases, values, and beliefs. This passage also points out an important part of Stoicism – the ability to know which things you can and cannot control.
For the things we do control we must take full responsibility – so our beliefs, values, responses to people, reactions to people – these are the things that we have the power to influence and we should use whatever tools we can to improve these things as an everyday practice.
This is sometimes hard with neurological barriers and being as an ADHD/Autistic/OCD person makes me sometimes take on unwanted or unneeded feelings. Of all the Stoic virtues to master, this is the hardest for me.
Courage was viewed as opposing cowardice – it doesn’t mean that you are immune to fear, anxiety, and desire, but rather that you act in spite of these things.
Epictetus stated that we shouldn’t feel shame if we react physiologically, with fear, or anxiety as a first reaction. This is often an involuntary and visceral reaction – ie. Jumping to the sound of thunder. What makes the Stoic reaction different to this is that we should train ourselves to reject the initial feeling, and let it go, so that we may bring ourselves back to reason.
“And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them …. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms”Aulus Gellius – Attic Nights
The best way to think of Temperance is to think of the modern day usage in the word moderation. It deals with our ability to self-regulate, and to choose long term over short term satisfaction.
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”Seneca – Letters from a Stoic
Indeed this is something I have recently been trying to put into practice with social media. Social media is addictive, and in my view counterproductive in most cases.
Definitely as the platforms are generally curated by algorithms they are used to drive engagement – so outrage sells – I use these platforms still, until I believe that there’s nothing of value to view (which is pretty much most of it – if uncurated).
In most other areas of my life, I have become pretty indifferent to comforts, and use the Stoic practice of withholding certain comforts (taking cold showers, sleeping outside, wearing one layer less of clothing, forgoing pain medication on bad pain days) to remind myself that these are luxuries that could be taken from me at any time.
This is the most important of the virtues for me personally, although all are important. Indeed Cicero wrote:
“Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues.”
This virtue specifically deals with how a Stoic treats others in everyday life, and how we contribute to society as a whole. It encompasses all the moral decisions we make in regards to our networks of influence and communities.
The principles that Stoics regard to be important in these contexts are kindness, understanding, fairness, and generosity. We must provide support to those who need it, and not take from the community without giving back.
This is probably what drew me to Stoicism when I first started reading up about it. I have always tried to regard myself as an ethical person. I have always cared about being altruistic, and for acting in the common good. I have been pretty average at doing this in the past – but I have specific examples of times in my life where the most joy I have felt was through assisting and helping others.
How I practice being a Stoic?
Everyday I listen to meditations – there’s a great podcast series by Massimo Pigliucci available on Spotify – which is a small roughly two minute meditation where an extract of the main Stoic philosophers is read and then analysed by Massimo, as well as giving context and modern examples of Stoic thinking put into practice. These meditations are a great way for me to start my day.
I have tried (and failed often, but always kept retrying) to create anchors for myself in the world in order to remember Stoic teachings, this has allowed me to try and rewire the part of my brain that instinctively reacts and to instead breathe, regather my thoughts, discard the first interaction and then focus on bringing back reason. Again, I am not perfect at this, and the goal is not perfection but to try and make sure that we live as close to the virtuous life as possible.
I carry a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on me at all times.
My career – I have specifically chosen a line of work that will lead me to maximising good for society as a whole. My further education that I am undertaking is in line with Stoic practices and allows me to fulfil my life of servitude toward the common good. I have no desire for material wealth, only to somehow deal with the immense challenges that we face as a society in the coming decade – specifically growing inequality, the climate crisis, racial injustice, and continuing denial of basic human rights. These are the challenges I want to deal with in life.
There are some modern schools of Stoic thought such as $toicism (a warped capitalist version) and Broicism (a distinctly anti-feminist branch of Stoicism). I reject both of these applications of the teachings as a wilful misunderstanding of the teaching of Stoic philosophy.
Stoicism should not be thought of as a rigid and fixed philosophy, indeed most modern Stoics incorporate good parts of any philosophy, so long as it allows them to better achieve virtue.
This is a very basic look at some of the core teachings of Stoicism – but there are a plethora of amazing resources for further reading. I’d recommend specifically:
- ‘How to Think Like a Roman Emperor’ – by Donald J. Robertson. This book written by a practising psychologist uses Marcus Aurelius’ life as a teaching tool for incorporating Stoic practice into every day life. The amazing thing he discovers is that a lot of modern psychological practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques were already used in practice almost two millennia ago by Stoics.
- Daily Stoic – an excellent website with regular updates and insights on living the life of a Stoic.
- ‘Live Like A Stoic : 52 Exercises for Cultivating a Good Life’ – Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez. A set of practical weekly exercises aimed at guiding you to living a more stoic life.
- Stoic Meditations – The podcast series by Massimo Pigliucci.
I might write more about some of the other key teachings in the future, but I thought I would start here.
This is in essence the goal of my life.