Arts & Humanities

Going Stoic

Can an ancient philosophy help you cope with your life right now?

By Cecilia D’Anastasio ’13 | March 2, 2020

On my first morning as a new Stoic, I was groggily leaving my bedroom to wash my face when I noticed three fish belly-up on the bottom of the living room fish tank. The night before, my partner and I had transferred our three painted tetras into a more spacious home and replaced our gaudy plastic decorations (including one yellow SpongeBob SquarePants pineapple) with a more adult underwater bonsai and living plants. It was a meticulous, controlled process that we weren’t totally meticulous about. A longtime friend from Reed came over partway through and, in an effort to play host, we forgot to check the tank’s ammonia balance.

Dragging the net through the bottom of the tank and spiraling a little, my first thought was, Damn me for getting so attached to the critters.

It was a bad day to crack open A Handbook for New Stoics, a 52-week master class in, its cover reads, “how to thrive in a world out of your control.” Some 2,300 years after the ancient Greeks brought Stoicism into this world, and thousands of years into its reputation as a hard-boiled philosophy for the unfeeling and aloof, A Handbook for New Stoics summons the wisdom of ancient Stoics Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius for a more modern practice. “The basic idea,” the book reads, “is that it is imperative to use our mental energy to focus on what is under our complete control, while regarding everything else as indifferent.”

Lesson one, I read in a cloud of melancholy on a crowded morning-commuter M train, dealt with a central Stoic tenet, the “dichotomy of control.” According to the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-135 CE), “Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in your control, and transfer it to the nature of what is in our control.” For the most part, you can’t control the outside world; you can only control your reaction to it. When it comes to what we can’t control, the ancients’ advice is to be at peace with the fact that anything could happen, and accepting of that “anything” outcome.

“Feeling devastated over my dumb fish,” I wrote under Wednesday’s exercise. Then, I was to write what I could not control: “the impact of every new factor on my fish.”

It’s 2020, and despite the number of businesses and products peddling some notion of agency over our lives—from Amazon Prime and meal prep delivery to exercise apps and Soylent—the overwhelming feeling among lots of Americans is, broadly, a loss of control. Bad things are happening, constantly and at a rapid fire rate, and we unfailingly hear about every single one of them on social media at all hours. Many of these things are very far away, or not things we are able to change by ourselves directly—not by voting, by bringing a canvas tote to the grocery store, by donating to a GoFundMe, by reading a privacy policy, or by flying to Flint, Michigan, with an industrial-sized water filter.

A recent New Yorker article on the renaissance of astrology, part of the now $2.2 billion “mystical services” industry, explains that in this age of uncertainty, young people are turning en masse to extrarational means of coping with circumstances outside our control. The author quotes Theodor Adorno’s takedown of a 1953 astrology column in his newspaper, in which he says that the column was for “persons who do not any longer feel that they are the self-determining subjects free of their fate.” As the threat of irreversible climate change is repeated every day with more urgency, as my generation of 20-to-40-year-olds is reminded constantly that we will face a retirement crisis, it’s fair to say this is even more the case for us now.

It’s interesting, then, that there’s a small renaissance of the opposite sort addressing the same problem. Around 300 BCE, a man named Zeno of Citium fell deeply in love with philosophy after making his fortune as a merchant. Once he mastered the philosophies of Socrates and the Cynic Crates, Zeno began teaching his own spins under a colonnade in central Athens. On those steps, or stoa in ancient Greek, Zeno and his disciplines became known as the Stoics. All this talk of discipline, control, and self-agency would froth and ferment against the background of a deeply torn land that Alexander the Great had sliced and diced in his famous conquests. Control was slipping away from city-states subject to the political tides.

“Stoicism offered its adherents a new view of themselves and their place in the universe,” explains Reed emeritus professor of classics Walter Englert [1981–2018]. “Stoics saw themselves as not in control of many things (including external events, politics, other people’s actions and opinions, and even their own health/bodies), but in control of their thoughts and emotions.”

At a cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Reed alumnus and A Handbook for New Stoics co-author Gregory Lopez ’99 counted on his fingers the number of modern Stoic groups he’s a part of: the New York City Stoics, the Stoic Fellowship, Stoic magazine, Stoic Camp, and the Modern Stoicism team, which runs Stoicon, an international convention that, last year in Athens, attracted hundreds who identify with the Stoic philosophy. Less self-help and more self-discipline, A Handbook for New Stoics is a good stab at a bible for the movement, which Greg and his coauthor, Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at CUNY, estimate encompasses hundreds of thousands of practicing modern Stoics.

“Zeno the founder described Stoicism’s goal as ‘a smooth flow of life,’ and I guess that’s the case,” says Greg. “But I think at least initially while it’s practice, it makes it a little harder.”

Before Reed, Greg was always on the science track, he explained. He was enamored of physics. “It amazed me that one could actually predict with a reasonable degree of certainty where a sled would be if you give it some initial conditions. This is like wizardry. It’s like, I could predict the future with math.” He fell into biochemistry and molecular biology at Reed, where he says he thrived under the guidance of Prof. Johnny Powell [physics 1987–2018]. But by graduation, Greg had ruled out becoming a professor, citing how he didn’t think he could frame his scientific research in terms of possible grants. He got a doctorate in pharmacy and now works at a startup that looks at the evidence basis for nutritional supplements.

Although he read a couple of Stoic texts at Reed, Stoicism didn’t present itself to him as a viable way of life until decades later. His Stoic lifestyle fell into place naturally, as he’d been practicing Buddhism and volunteering with an organization that teaches cognitive behavioral therapy, which he says was heavily inspired by Stoicism, to people with addictive behaviors. He describes how, in the 1950s, psychoanalyst Albert Ellis drew from Stoic philosophers Epictetus and Seneca in his groundbreaking rational emotive therapy—the idea that our behavior is heavily influenced by our thinking. The goal of this therapy is to identify and challenge the kind of thinking underpinning aggression, addiction, and self-sabotaging behavior.

It was reading Ellis’s work that persuaded Greg to give an ancient philosophy a modern shake. Investigating online, he began connecting the dots between Buddhism, public do-gooding, his Reed College education in the Classics, molecular biology, and his deep-seated belief that thoughts determine emotions more than external reality.

“All of wellbeing is ultimately internal,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter what’s going on on the outside.”

■ ■ ■

After journaling in the book for a week, I cracked open “Week Two” on my Wednesday morning subway commute. My controllables and uncontrollables had been sorted, and it was time, as the book read, to “Focus on what is completely in your control.”

Under the fish tank, I kept a small pharmacy of aquarium chemicals. And later, on Amazon, I trawled through pages and pages of reviews for different pH tests, ammonia tests, nitrite tests, with each reviewer reporting a wildly differing result. There was infinite information on infinite fora, and I felt paralyzed by the canyon between the amount of control I was being sold and the amount of control I felt. That night, someone would tell me a harrowing story about how their boss, who kept a $10,000 fish menagerie, paid an expert incalculable sums to move his tank from one home to another, only for all of the fish to die midtransfer. I didn’t know whether to feel better or worse. Staring into the tank, now furnished with dull, green mossballs and a lifeless and nubbed bonsai, I sank into a fresh worry.

A Handbook for New Stoics asked me to revisit what I’d written the week before and brainstorm ways I could have avoided something out of my control that I didn’t want by leveraging factors within my control. I thought back to the traumatic fish tank transfer and, putting the book back in my bag, became overwhelmed with regret and self-pity. Was A Handbook for New Stoics telling me I killed my fish?

“So first of all, take it as data,” Greg explained when I asked him that same question. “If past situations come up in my mind, it’s like, is there something I can learn from it? And if there is, then I can process it and be done with it. And if there isn’t, then that is all beyond the circle of control—barring a time machine,” he laughed. More seriously, he added, “And so, one of the major lessons of Stoicism is to not beat yourself up over past errors because the past is done. You just can’t go back and change it. It’s completely beyond your control.”

With all the money I’d sunk into fish care, and the time my partner and I spent researching it on endless fish forum threads, it was tempting to feel that I had complete control over what was to come. This is the promise of technology, to “hack” things. Cheat the system. Undermine the facts of things. Part of why there’s a small swelling of Stoic currents now is that, despite that promise, “we want the same things, we’re afraid of the same things,” says Greg’s coauthor, Dr. Pigliucci. “Even down to the mundane,” he says, citing a frustrated letter the Stoic Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius complaining about how the traffic noise under his apartment distracted him from writing.

“The new tools are what they are. They’re tools,” says Dr. Pigliucci.

If human nature hasn’t changed much, as Dr. Pigliucci says, then we’re still experiencing the same heartbreak, the same existential fears for our countries, the same mourning of dead pets. (One famous poem from the Roman poet Catullus describes his girlfriend mourning her pet sparrow.) Dr. Pigliucci says that daily he engages in the Stoic practice of not getting angry on Twitter, where he maintains his calm while people, he says, “throw all sorts of stuff at me.”

Throughout weeks of Stoic discipline, as laid out in A Handbook for New Stoics, I challenged myself to cut out my midday snack, to throw out my old coats, to catalog what I did wrong on a certain day, to consider how the universe doesn’t care about me. For the most part, it stung. Stoicism isn’t the self-flagellating forgiveness of Catholicism or the quick-release pleasure of impulse shopping. It is a slow-release pill of self-betterment that you have to dry swallow every second of every day.

This, too, is a mind game, it turns out. Week 10 asked me to “act the opposite,” quoting Seneca, who says that “we are attracted by such things as riches, pleasures, beauty, ambition, and other such coaxing and pleasing objects; we are repelled by toil, death, pain, disgrace, or lives of greater frugality. We ought therefore to train ourselves so that we may avoid a fear of the one or a desire for the other.” Okay, I thought, taking account of my Stoic practice so far: I was still beating myself up for killing my fish and, on top of that, skipping my daily snack made me grumpy at work.

In the prompt under Wednesday’s “Aversions (Things You Dislike or Avoid),” I wrote in “Stoicism,” partly as a joke, but partly in truth, because 10 weeks in, I was feeling no more enlightened and significantly more down on myself. Stoicism was hard, as were commuting, staying attentive at work, grocery shopping, meal prep, exercise, and being a good friend, daughter, and fish mom.

But one day that week—sandwiched between the day I barely forced myself to stop being afraid of dogs and the day I almost relished in buying nothing at all and, at the last moment, impulsively ordered delivery dinner—I hit a low point. That day, the single most consistent thought I had on the subway, trudging through Times Square to my office, responding to morning emails, shoving a bleak lunch into my face, suffering through the afternoon yawns and then dragging my corpse-like body back home, was that I am transcendentally bad at Stoicism and my life just could not accommodate it. At that low point, I decided to give up. F it.

The next day, I was released. I awoke in a good mood. Maybe I had had too much coffee, or found a rare seat on the subway that morning, but on that day,  I persuaded myself to control-view every feeling of offense, hurt, or anxiety that came up. Two deep breaths, and I commented “Thank you” under a particularly cruel edit from my boss or found it in me to patiently tell a dawdling Times Square tourist, “Excuse me.” I returned home equally tired.

Either I had properly internalized the dichotomy of control, or my state of utter surrender happens to resemble what it is to be a mediocre Stoic. In either case, I take no credit.

In a Chinatown aquarium store, my partner and I picked out three identical barbs—fast-moving fish that move in packs. I didn’t immediately name them. And although the pharmacy of fish-keeping chemicals and equipment expands weekly under the aquarium, and although we meticulously check the tank’s pH, nitrite, ammonia, and temperature, the barbs, in my Stoic mind, remain high-maintenance decorations.

Cecilia D’Anastasio ’13 is a staff writer at Wired, where she covers video games and gaming culture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with several fish and a small, terrible frog.

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