“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Stoicism is undergoing something of a revival. The The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian have all recently suggested that the 2000 year old philosophy offers an antidote to the current unsettling times that we live in.
So what is stoicism?
The definition of stoicism is “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complain”. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in 3rd century BC. It was named after Stoa Poikile (meaning Painted Porch), the location where Zeno taught philosophy. The most famous Stoicism practitioners were Cato the Younger, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Why is stoicism is enticing?
Stoicism was a form of practical philosophy designed to overcome stress and anxiety and attain inner calm or tranquility. Stoics distinguished between instinctive reactions or passion and eupatheia (“feelings resulting from correct judgment in the same way as passions result from incorrect judgment”[Source:Wikipedia]). This was with the goal of achieving apatheia, (peace of mind resulting from clear judgment and maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows).
According to the Stoics, the key to achieving this goal consisted of cultivating the four cardinal virtues of : wisdom (to navigate complex situations), courage , justice (to treat others fairly), and temperance (self-control).
A central component of stoicism is the concept that some things are under their control and some are not and thus the goal of stoicism is to recognize that they can only control their own will and behaviour but not the eventual outcomes of such actions.
Indeed, Epictetus, was born a slave and wrote extensively on how Stoicism helps to accept one’s fate of oppression. In a recent interview, the philosopher, Sandy Grant of Cambridge University suggested that “Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies”.
My concern is that this sounds a lot like the myth of the “strong black woman” trying to endure her emotions and tough it out against intersectional oppression.
Recently black feminist writers have exposed the poverty of this narrative and the damaging psychological effects that it is having on women. In Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman, Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant interviews 58 Black women to explore the concept of the “Strong Black Woman.” She “traces the historical and social influences on normative Black femininity” and argues that the idea that “the idea of strength undermines its real function: to defend and maintain a stratified social order by obscuring Black women’s experiences of suffering, acts of desperation, and anger”.
“Not only does the expectation of strength creates a distraction from broader forces of discrimination and imbalances of power, the pressure to appear invulnerable laves a significant physical and emotional toll on many Black women, leading to eating disorders and chronic depression”.
What about the importance of emotions?
The problem with attempting to follow the Stoic doctrine and enduring or attempting to not allow these painful emotions to arise, is that often the energy of the emotion doesn’t disappear. For example, unprocessed or suppressed anger can either turns inwards and be expressed as depression (as depicted in “Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman” or can turn outwards and be expressed as violence.
In The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You (2010) Karla McLaren suggests taking the opposite approach of:
- actively identifying your emotions
- accepting your right to have these emotions
- attributing the root cause of the emotion
- taking whatever actions are possible within your locus of control or indeed acknowledging that no action is possible so that the emotion can dissipate rather than cause further harm.
In other words, taking the subtle power approach of prioritising self-care over stoic endurance and recognising that:
Featured image – Creative Commons by Penny Lam via Flickr