Mary Kenny: 'Some things - even quite anguishing family worries - are simply beyond my control, and this I must daily accept'
One of my oldest friends gave me a meaningful present at Christmas: a book of morning readings entitled The Daily Stoic. This is a compilation of thoughts and meditations drawn on those dead white males from the ancient world - Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. Stoics, whose philosophy could be summed up by the snappy aphorism: "grin and bear it".
Yet these old guys' sayings haven't endured for two millennia for nothing. They've helped people get through life's difficulties with fortitude. And they're enjoying something of a revival.
Epictetus tells us that our first waking thought should be to focus on what we can control, and leave aside what we cannot. "We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion and everything of our own doing. We don't control our body, property, reputation, position and everything not of our own doing." Anxiety, says this Turkish-born philosopher of the Roman Empire, is the result of "trying to control what is beyond your control".
The Stoics cultivated acceptance of anything beyond the reasoned self. Courage was essential, and for Seneca, courage comes from acts of abstinence and renunciation. "We must give up many things to which we are addicted… otherwise courage will vanish, which should continually test itself." A useful application, perhaps, for the season of Lent. But everything depends on an attitude of mind.
Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and a committed Stoic, says that: "You have power over your own mind - not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength." Epictetus again reminds us that we have no control over "our parents, siblings, children or country". So quit trying to control everything outside of your power!
Yes, I have tried to practice this 'Daily Stoic' advice, and I've found it useful to remind myself that there is no point in trying to control people - especially family members - circumstances or events which are beyond my control. It only leads to anxiety and stress. No point in throwing some piece of technology across the room when it's being maddeningly difficult.
These Stoics also teach about the power of saying "No". They uphold indifference: we don't have to have an opinion about everything, and sometimes it's better to play dumb. "If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters. Don't wish to seem knowledgeable." Anger is pointless. Marcus Aurelius says to those of the masculine sex that: "It isn't manly to be angry."
Fear is not only crippling, but Seneca suggests it may bring about the very thing most feared. "Men are harmed by fear itself, and many may have come to their fate while dreading it," he wrote, illuminating the story of Oedipus.
These stoical philosophers can be a calming influence in our hectic and sometimes angry world. And yet some of their nostrums can be challenged too.
Yes, anger is bad for the soul - Epictetus talks a lot about the soul - but sometimes it fuels good causes. Many an admirable campaign was launched - Josephine Butler's crusade against slavery and exploitation of under-age girls - in a mood of righteous anger. Lofty indifference may bring peace of mind, but would anything ever change if it prevailed everywhere?
It's not always that easy to decide what is within our control and what is not. Sometimes you have to try and push the envelope. Parents can't always control their teenage offspring, but sometimes they have to try.
And is too much emphasis on what we cannot control self-limiting? I attend a regular writers' group where members know that getting a book published or a play produced may be outside of their control, depending on luck, timing, even economics: but you've got to try! And you never know what will emerge just by trying.
The Stoics insist we do not control our bodies - but this is possibly a reflection of age. Epictetus was nearly 80 when he died, and the realisation that you do not have autonomy over your body is one that comes with time: when you can't sprint for a bus, or read without corrective spectacles, or you receive a diagnosis of illness which has no remedy - then you know that your body does not obey your will. Young and healthy people feel they're entitled to complete control over their bodies.
The Stoics' emphasis on the choices that we make also evokes the other side of choice: consequences. So you've made a terrible choice - now live with the responsibility.
It's said that Stoicism faded with the rise of Christianity, around the third century. I'd suggest that elements of Stoicism fed into Christianity. Seneca tells us that at nightfall we should "put each day up for review". This became part of the Christian exhortation to "examine your conscience".
I'll keep reading the Stoics' handbook (put together from the Latin by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman): and I do find it comforting to reflect that some things - even quite anguishing family worries - are simply beyond my control, and this I must daily accept. Thanks, Epictetus!