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A Short Primer on Stoicism



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One of the most noble drives of the ancient Greeks was their search for meaning of life, the pursuit of an archetypical good life. The Greeks called this pursuit philosophy and it was one of the many great things they left behind for us (along with a plethora of scientific advancements, great strides in theater and architecture).  The word philosophy comes from the Greek words philein (“to love”) and sophia (“wisdom”). The greeks developed multiple schools of philosophy, and different theories were quite dividing issue among the upper crust of Greek nobility (or the whole culture as our elementary school teachers would want us to believe, still). Across the ages, the art and science of philosophy developed quite a bit. Renaissance and Enlightenment took ideas that had been contemplated centuries past and developed them further, transforming the fields of science, poetry, theater and culture. Still, I think there is a school of thought that can be quite useful to an entrepreneur in this day and age. Stoicism.

Stoicism was a school of thought developed by Zeno of Citium in Athens, some time during the 3rd century. Writings from the time describe his as a rather ragged individual. Apparently, he lived quit ascetically, though not quite as shamelessly as his cynic (referring to the philosophical school rather than faux-cool and edgy teenagers of our time) teacher, Crates of Thebes. Cynicism however left its’ mark on stoicism; both philosophies favored rather plain lifestyles, though achieved through differing methods. Zeno’s quest for knowledge purportedly began after he consulted an oracle on how to attain “the best life”. The oracle, rather cryptically in my opinion, is told to have answered that he should take on the complexion of the dead. Rather than develop an unhealthy obsession with corpses and graveyards, Zeno took this to mean that he should study the writings and teaching of ancient authors and teachers. Through this he, like everyone who studies philosophy came across Socrates. Apparently, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and its portrayal of the fabled father of philosophy was partly what led Zeno to Crates and thus to his work on philosophy.

So now that I’ve rambled for a paragraph on the founder of stoicism, what is stoicism? Well, as word, stoicism derives from the word stoikos, meaning “of the stoa”. Stoa is taken to mean porch and the whole phrase refers to the place where Zeno used to teach in Athens. In modern vernacular, stoic means, according to urbandictionary.com “someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.”. Generally, if you are considered stoic, you show little to no emotion, unless something emotional is happening to you. So, a basic, stereotypical Finn is absolutely a stoic in that sense. But what is stoicism in philosophical sense? Let’s look at the basics.

The stoics believed in a unified world, a unified cosmos. Their world view was composed of formal logic, monist physics and naturalistic ethics, which I’m not even going to pretend to understand. To put it far too simply, the stoics considered the world to have a certain way it was going. A flow, if you will. They called this flow logos. I’m not quite sure of the exact translation, as I do not speak Greek, much less the ancient dialects of it, but to my understanding it can be translated as either “the way” or “the way”. Some have argued that it can also be translated as “the joke”, which I’m rather fond of. In his book Business for Bohemians, entrepreneur Tom Hodgkinson compares logos to the Taoist concept of Tao, also translated as the Way, as they are quite similar. In Taoism, however, the Tao cannot be grasped full-heartedly as just a concept. Stoics don’t necessarily try to understand logos as much try to follow it. To achieve a “good life”, one should, according to the stoics, strive to understand logos. To “go with the flow”.

To be able to go with the flow, to understand logos, stoics taught self-control and fortitude. This pair of magnificent words and concepts were used to overcome destructive emotions. Now, in our current age of mindfulness and self-care, it is imperative to understand that not all emotions are negative, and that we should not live a life without emotions, moving through the world as an automaton or like a stick in a stream, not reacting or acting on emotions.

No, it is rather important that we understand our negative, destructive emotions and learn from them. And ultimately learn to overcome them. Zeno described these destructive emotions as passions. He specifically described four: distress, fear, lust and delight. Distress, according to Zeno, is an irrational contraction. In modern terms, distress could be translated as melancholy; the feeling that something is wrong or bad in our current situation and thus we should be depressed. Note that this is different from clinical depression. One is a feeling and one is an actual mental illness that requires professional help.

Fear, on the other hand, is an irrational aversion to something. It is the avoidance of an expected danger. Not just survival instinct or fight-or-flight-reflex. It is the avoidance of necessary, vital situations that fill us with fear and anxiety. A visit to the dentist, meeting your in-laws. Swedish exam. Stoicism teaches us that we should face these things head on, rather than avoiding them.

Lust is not just sexual feelings of desire or the one of the seven catholic deadly sins. It is all irrational desire. The pursuit of things that we do not necessarily require, but rather desire for the pleasure they might bring us. A new car, a burger, that sixth beer.

Zeno calls delight an irrational swelling, which sounds way funnier than it actually is. His description of it sounds rather like what modern medicine would consider mania, a sort-of opposite of depression.

In addition to trying to control and contain these base passions, stoics endorsed improving individual ethical and moral well-being. In other words, and to quote the actor/author/all-around nerd Wil Wheaton “Don’t be a dick.”. The original stoics were urged to accept that everyone, even slaves were of equal worth. “…because all men are products of nature.” As Bertrand Russel summarized in his book A History of Western Philosophy.

But how does this all relate at all to entrepreneurship? Well Tom Hodgkinson interviewed his friend, author Mark Vernon for his book Business for Bohemians and received the following adage “Your freedom lies in embracing the knocks and the blows, trusting that all will end well in the valley. Suffering arises from hating and bemoaning and cursing and fearing the knocks and blows.” This quite well hits the metaphorical bulls eye. We all will suffer knockbacks and struggles in our lives. Hell, it’s a common (though I couldn’t find a source with quick Google search) anecdote that half of new businesses fail within first five years!

So how do we battle these anxieties, imagined or justified? Simple. Inoculation! If we teach ourselves to accept and overcome small annoyances and obstacles, we shall soon learn that we have learned to accept slightly larger obstacles. A bit by bit, gradually, formerly unsurmountable obstacles appear as ant hills that we can just step over.

Further, learn to give up on petty anger, especially on small things (isn’t that exactly what petty is? Making a big deal out of small, insignificant things). Someone spills your beer? Don’t sweat it, go ahead and get yourself another one. Be indifferent towards annoyances that are, in reality, indifferent.

I sincerely believe that stoicism can, despite its’ ancient sources, be a font of strength. A practiced indifference (and irreverence) towards small things is freeing in itself but striving to be free of the negative passions and emotions that plague our lives can be incredible feeling. When you don’t “sweat the little things”, you can concentrate on truly important things, like improving yourself (also a stoic virtue) or your business. Think about adopting a certain carefree attitude. I now conclude with a quote that T.S. Eliot attributed to Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and first female English author:

“…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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