The Invincible Stoic

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed. 
Epictetus claims I can become invincible. It's an appealing notion. I can't claim to be a fan of pain. Few people are. The thought of leaving stress, anxiety, and hurt behind me resonates with a comfort seeking self. There's a reason I don't go to the gym enough, and it isn't a love of body fat. I've been told I live in a culture of comfort. Perhaps, but it seems more reasonable to admit that I come from a species of comfort-seekers. Which is also to say, I am simply a living being.


As I said, I'm not a fan of pain. However, I am a student of pain. Pain is the reason I never became a Buddhist. I respect much about that philosophy, but unlike Siddhartha I believe that pain is a feature, not a bug, in this universe. It is pain and struggle that shaped the world. Speciation exists because a billion habitats were not comfortable enough for a million billion stressed out ancestors of everything on this earth. So when Epictetus tells me to become impervious to my environment, I wonder if he's also asking me to cease developing. That's not my style. I remember the former me, a lot of them, and I always enjoy present me more. I figure by the time I'm 120 I'll be pretty damn fantastic. The thought of freezing into a mid-30s mindset is not very appealing.


So when I approach Epictetus, I need him to convince me that his Stoicism engages the world. I have no time for viewpoints that flee from it. Which brings me to his most famous line. Some things are in our control and others not. There, in a nutshell, Epictetus lays out the foundation that he built his stoic practice on. The more complete opening goes like this,
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
If I understand Epictetus, he equates control over things with ownership of those things. I find this reasonable. Possession is nine tenths of the law, and the other tenth involves me begging a more powerful force to get my bauble back. From that premise, Epictetus goes on to claim that I only own myself. Particularly, I only own my mental self. Notice that even my body isn't included in the ownership list. I accept this point as well. At present, my body is pretty much in sync with my mind. It does what I want it to do. If I were to talk to Michael J. Fox, however, we might have quite a conversation about the trustworthiness of the body. So here I am, saying that the only things I can effect with certainty are my own opinions of the world, my desires in the world (and the other side of the coin, my aversions) and my choice whether of not to pursue those desires.


A final Epictetus quote, this one from the Discourses. I will show the nerves of a philosopher. "What nerves are these?" A desire never disappointed, an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid, a proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. These you shall see. The nerves of a philosopher. To show nerve, you need something to steel them against. So there is a struggle here. It's the struggle to be invincible. Epictetus is wrestling with himself. He grapples with his intellect, trying to force it to pay attention to the right things and dismiss the rest. The struggle is internal but it is about his approach to the external world. His imperviousness, after all, ends with an assent which is not rash.
Stoicism engages with the world, but it refuses to struggle with it. Epictetus asks me to accept that I can't control my environment, but that I can control my reaction to it. Ideally, I will apply 100% effort towards only those things which I can control and in so doing I will act powerfully; free from fear, anger, and other burdens. Instead of struggling, I'm striving. The world can't wrestle me to the ground because I'm untouchable. Yet I'm still challenged to put one foot in front of the other to reach my goals. I will continue to develop under these terms. I can even thrive. I might not ever become invincible. I'm not sure Epictetus ever felt he got there either. Still, we can both agree that it's worth the effort.

Stoic Disclaimer

I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters. I too have a right to form an opinion.  


I make a single claim concerning Stoicism. If I practice Stoicism diligently, I will flourish. That is the full extent of what I am willing to argue about my philosophy. The Stoics have made, do make, many claims. We live in a determined universe. Happiness is generated from within. We are kin to the gods! I am interested, often deeply, in the many topics that Stoics have addressed throughout the ages. However, those details are not the foundation on which I build my life philosophy.

Stoicism allows me to flourish. It moves me to act, and to act well. In increasingly frequent moments the practice helps me capture joy, and when joy escapes me, there is still tranquility.

I expect that you can have a similar experience. That if you choose to practice Stoicism diligently, you will flourish as well. That, however, is not part of my claim. I plan on writing about the practice of Stoicism. In particular, I plan on making Stoic Saturday a weekly event. All of my posts are Van Natta Stoicism. I mean to do well by the Stoics of the past and present, but my opinions are my own. I hope that what I write is applicable to others. I welcome conversation.  But please, remember this disclaimer before taking me to task. Thanks.



Daily Stoic Ritual

Every morning for the last month I've begun the day with these words from Marcus Aurelius.

Today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness--all of them due to the offender's ignorance of what is good and what is evil.

I came to modern Stoicism a few months ago, through the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In it, author William Irvine makes a strong case that stoicism has much to offer the modern world. I don't believe the practice is for everyone. It fits best in an analytical mind and, in my opinion, particularly benefits those who have a touch of social anxiety. Stoicism is concerned with the internal and dismisses the external. Its central message may have best been described by Descartes, who must have cribbed heavily from the Stoic masters.

Always to seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the established order, and generally believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned.

I remember reading that quote over a decade ago and being upset by the phrase, to change my desires rather than the established order. At the time I could only imagine the worst forms of passivity deriving from such a creed. That is no longer a fear of mine. Stoics were passionate, world-changing types. When you are free from anxiety about the external world you are free to live out the world you want.

I've been reading the Stoic essentials, mainly The Enchiridion and Meditations. I've enjoyed arguing with Epictetus, Aurelius, and Seneca. I've been looking for fellow stoics. I'm noticing that stoic teachings spring up a lot on the web. Unfortunately, stoicism tends to be one ingredient in most peoples' larger philosophy of life. I have found few people who use it as the core of their value system. No matter, stoicism delivers for me.

I'll be posting about stoicism from time to time. I feel a bit duty-bound to share. There's just so little out there. I'd love to engage in dialogue concerning the practice. I'm on G+, Twitter and, of course, this very site. Also, if anyone knows the secret stoic handshake, teach it to me please.