"There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more in our imagination than in reality."
That's a line from Seneca's 13th letter to Lucilius. Titled, "on Groundless Fear," this letter delves into all the mental miscalculations that make us humans slaves to fear. Another line from the letter reminds us that, "Some things torment us more than they should; some torment us before they should; and some torment us when they should not torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow."
How can we stop doing this? How can we take control of our mind and make certain that fear can not take root there?
- What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?
- The Stoics say that fear is all in my head but, if so, my head is really good at generating fear. What should I do about that?
- Outside of reigning in my imagination, how can I Stoicially confront fear?
Alright, let's get started.
What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?
Stoicism and emotions. Not exactly the peanut butter and chocolate of conversational topics. But before we can discuss fear, it's important to set up a scaffolding of Stoic concepts to support the conversation. So shake off all those cultural ideas of Stoics purging their emotions, eschewing joy, or any of that misguided stuff and settle in for a quick and probably inadequate primer on the Stoic approach to emotions.
The first thing we need to do is drop the term emotion. It's too loaded...with meaning. If you made a Venn Diagram of the Stoic concepts we're going to be addressing and all those concepts contained in the word 'emotion' there would only be a sliver of overlap. The word I'm selecting to encompass the Stoic ideas of fear, anger, despair, etc...will be 'passion' or 'passions' as a plural. The expected benefit of using this somewhat archaic term is to arrest the listener. To cause us to stop and think about meaning, "why did he say passion instead of emotion?' Is there a difference?" Yes. There are many differences. For a much fuller understanding of those differences, I would direct you to a talk given by John Sellars during Stoic Week 2014, which I'll be certain to provide a link to on Immoderate Stoic. A quick quote from that talk, "the Stoics don't reject emotion, they reject passion, and that's quite a different thing."
In his talk, John Sellars lists four categories that fall within the concept of emotion. Three of those categories are fully embraced by Stoicism, meaning they are accepted as a necessary part of a fully human life. Only one aspect of human emotion is meant to be overcome and cast aside. That would be the passions.
Here are Sellar's categories in short:
First, emotions of affinity: Stoicism assumes that we are predisposed to care for ourselves, our close relatives, and, if we mature, we'll care for all humankind. In Stoicism it is not possible to flourish in life and remain emotionally indifferent to the wellbeing of others.
Next, emotions of shock: Even the mythical perfect Sage will experience goosebumps, blush, or be startled by a loud noise. Stoicism considers these to be natural physiological responses. We refer to them as pre-passions or, more poetically, "first movements of the soul." There is nothing wrong with experiencing pre-passions, it's our reaction to those reactions that falls under Stoic scrutiny.
The third category is the one that Stoics seek to overcome. The Passions: A passion is an emotional response to an external state of affairs based on a mistaken value judgment. Passions stem from judgments, our judgments are of course, under our control (in Stoic psychology) and therefore here we can stand our ground. Here we can say, "I feel something, it's based on a mistaken belief, therefore I should change my belief which will change my feeling." It's not that our Stoic hearts are two sizes too small and therefore we turn our noses up at big bold feelings. It's that the passions are built on errors. Stoicism insists that if we allow ourselves to be driven by passions that are based on mistakes, we will live inconsistently and we will not thrive. The passion we'll be discussing, FEAR, is defined as an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger. Fear tosses away our present contentment simply because something might take it away later! Which is fundamentally ridiculous. Mistakes like that are what Stoicism admonishes us to avoid.
The fourth category, by the way, are Good Passions: positive emotional responses based on correct value judgments. Not only does Stoicism admit that good, lovely, worthy emotions are possible, the expectation is that a Stoic life will necessarily include those passions. A healthy mind includes a healthy emotional life.
So remember, part and parcel of a healthy human life are care and concern for others, natural physiological responses to the events of life, and positive passions based on proper value judgments.
So again: What's the Stoic view of fear and do Stoics experience it?
Passions are disorders of the soul. They are irrational responses to events. The direct products of faulty reasoning. Fear is an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger. All fear, in the Stoic view, is groundless. So do Stoics experience it, of course! None of us are perfect. However, we do combat fear and NOT by simply suppressing it. Instead, we work to change the mistaken beliefs that generate and feed fear, so that it never takes root in the first place.
The Stoics say that fear is all in my head but, if so, my head is really good at generating fear. What should I do?
"Cease to harass your soul!" That's another Seneca quote. If we accept that fear is generated by our own judgments, then the emotional distress that we are combating is self-inflicted. We simply need to stop harassing ourselves.
Marcus Aurelius agreed with this line of reasoning and, thankfully, he wrote down advice concerning HOW to cease harassing our soul. We can find it in Book 7, Chapter 29 of his Meditations:
"Stop fantasizing! Cut the strings of desire that keep you dancing like a puppet. Draw a circle around the present moment. Recognize what is happening either to you or to someone else. Dissect everything into its causal and material elements. Ponder your final hour. Leave the wrong with the person who did it."
The Emperor doesn't want to waste his life working himself up over the unreal. To combat his wandering thoughts, he reminds himself of five stoic mental practices:
- Attend to the present moment
- Focus on what affects people here and now
- Break things down until they are understandable and manageable
- Remember that life is short
- "Leave the wrong with the person who did it."
The Stoic mind is rooted in the present. Seneca put it this way, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet." If we focus on what we can do now, this minute, to make our lives better we can not only avoid ruminating on imagined future difficulties, we can know that we did our best to keep those difficulties from occurring. Aurelius reminds himself to open his eyes to the present environment, particularly concerning what is happening to himself and others.
I used to constantly worry about getting seated on time and and at the best possible table when going out to eat with friends. I can not tell you the number of pre-dinner conversations I failed to enjoy because I was busy worrying about whether the during-dinner conversations would happen on time. What a ridiculous but common way to approach life.
Aurelius also says to "break things down until they are understandable and manageable." So here we once again run into the Stoic practice of Physical Definition. A full explanation is found in Episode 3 of Good Fortune so I won't repeat myself here. Concerning fear, we can use Physical Definition to strip our imagined future down into parts and evaluate them from a Stoic perspective. In Letter 13 Seneca shares a series of questions developed for just that purpose.
"Put the question voluntarily to yourself: "Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?""
As was pointed out in the opening to this episode, we are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.
Just a few days into Stoic week 2015 I learned that I might not be able to purchase the house that I've spent the last month or so attempting to get. Some business about insurmountable permitting, zoning, blah blah blah issues. I've been a good Stoic during the entire home buying process so I haven't fully invested myself in the property and such, but still, when my loan guy called saying he thought the whole deal was dead, I got red in the face. Not anger or embarrassment, just a...I don't know, up-swelling of chemical "what the heck?!" A definite first movement of the soul. After that pre-passion I felt a few actual passions, no doubt. I was ok with losing the house, it wasn't even mine after all, but the idea of breaking the news to my wife and of going back into the house hunting process, now with significantly less time before our present lease was up...all of that was swimming in my head.
To ask myself Seneca's three questions: was I tormenting myself without reason? Well, nothing I felt was going to change my ability to purchase a house. Also, my family is in a good place in life. Not getting the house would be a setback but not deeply disruptive. Was I morose? Well, I hadn't had time to get into a funk concerning events, so no. And I can honestly report the same state today, by the way. Was I converting a non-evil into an evil? I was in danger of doing so. It did feel to me for a time that losing the house would be a bad thing. Which isn't true. After all, nothing about the house buying process has the ability to affect my virtue. I can thrive without any of it. So Stoically, I couldn't justify feeling fear, anger, or any other strong discontentment concerning the situation.
The process of stepping back and criticizing my initial judgments helped my find my footing. Continuing on and accepting my new judgments actually uprooted the passions that had begun to grow in my mind. And that is the Stoic goal. Never to suppress or ignore our fears, to uproot them completely through a radical change in perspective.
Outside of reigning in my imagination, how can I Stoicially confront fear?
When we really begin to face fear as a Stoic, we'll begin to relish the obstacle that it represents.
Listen to how Seneca lays it out at the end of Letter 13.
"But I am ashamed either to admonish you sternly or to try to beguile you with such mild remedies. Let another say. "Perhaps the worst will not happen." You yourself must say. "Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life." Socrates was ennobled by the hemlock draught. Wrench from Cato's hand his sword, the vindicator of liberty, and you deprive him of the greatest share of his glory."
Seneca is saying that the fear avoidance tactic of hoping for the best, of wishful thinking, is weak sauce. The Stoic tactic isn't wishful thinking, it's unshakable thinking.
When he opens Letter 13 he commends his friend for already displaying a Stoic pride in battling life's ups and downs.
"I know that you have plenty of spirit; for even before you began to equip yourself with maxims which were wholesome and potent to overcome obstacles, you were taking pride in your contest with Fortune; and this is all the more true, now that you have grappled with Fortune and tested your powers. For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves."
strictly speaking, if we were perfect Stoics, we would never battle fear because we would never experience it. But we do experience fear, so we have to choose how to combat it. Our first option is to avoid the thing we fear. That leaves our emotional state in the hands of fate, which is unacceptable. We could also avoid thinking about our fears, assuage them by thinking cheerful thoughts like, "what are the chances the worst possible thing will happen?" The Stoic option is to attack fear at the root. We change the very judgments that create the fear. We change what we control, ourselves, our own mind, and make it better suited for the world as it is.
Now, it may seem that we are leaving a void where our passions used to be. Fear can, after all, drive us to actions. The passion of anger is often pointed to as supposed fuel for meaningful change. Well, we Stoics live according to nature and nature abhors a vacuum. The space where the passion of fear once was is meant to be filled by a 'good passion' in this case the Stoic concept named Caution.
Caution is the rational avoidance of an expected danger. Caution recognizes that there are things we can reasonably prefer to avoid as long as avoiding them doesn't lead to lack of virtue. In a previous episode I quoted Book 6 Chapter 20 of the Meditations, "In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don't denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance." That friendly distance is Caution; a simple, prudent step in keeping with wisdom. Notice that Caution doesn't cause us to get out of the ring. It's simply an adjustment of our stance as we happily continue to wrestle.
Thank you for listening to Good Fortune Episode 11. It's taken awhile to get here. As I mention on the blog, FB, and Twitter, I've had a lot going on that has to take precedent over writing and recording. With various holiday's arriving, I can't expect things to get smoother so I believe the rest of this year's episodes will be released a bit haphazardly. Starting next year the standard schedule will be 1st and 3rd FRIDAYS.
I hope you participated in Stoic Week and found it useful. I know I quite enjoyed it and am looking forward to reviewing the videos that come out of Stoicon. Speaking of the Stoicon gathering, Stoicon 2016 is going to be held in New York City. I'm already saving up for my ticket.
Beginning in January, Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month. As always, visit ImmoderateStoic.com for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at PaintedPorch.org.
The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.
And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.