Stoicism the wrong way. Let’s examine what that would look. Before you hit dislike, press exit, or furiously comment your take on what is about to be shared, let me tell you beforehand: this is not a case against Stoicism. It is a psychological reflection of how Stoicism can contribute to greater individual and collective well-being. And how misinterpretations of Stoic ideals can aggravate mental health and well-being rather than positively contribute to it.
In other words, this piece is meant to raise questions and stimulate reflection rather than prescribing or demanding change in any direction. Some of these questions include:
Why is Stoicism so appealing to the postmodern man and woman? Is there a right and wrong way of practicing Stoicism? What sort of mindset needs to be in place when you decide to become a student or a practitioner of Stoicism?
With this said, let’s then open and cultivate debate.
Virtues: The Building Blocks of Wellbeing
One of the most remarkable aspects of Stoicism is its focus on Virtue. For Stoics, Virtue is the center of leading a good life. It is worth to note they walk on the shoulders of giants such as Plato and Aristotle? Who laid the foundation of the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. However, no one has worn these so diligently as the Stoics and the students of Stoicism.
Stoics wield these virtues like their badge and code of honor. Their attitude inspires and ignites curiosity within us. Perhaps some of us are attracted to Stoic ideals as a moth to light because, like psychological archetypes, virtues are somewhat universal and echo in eternity. In one way or another, we all relate to them, even if only from a subconscious stance. They spark our sense of truth, beauty and goodness. Which Plato considered to be the fuel of human transcendence – also a psychological need of humankind and one of the most impactful sources of well-being.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. If the gods exist, then to abandon human beings is not frightening; the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, what would be the point of living in a world without gods or Providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us, and everything a person needs to avoid real harm they have placed within him. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death, they would have made sure that the ability to avoid it was within you. If it doesn’t harm your character, how can it harm your life?”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2.11
Lean into the virtues of Stoicism
Could this be the reason why so many enjoy and find the Meditations so relatable? Millenia after Marcus Aurelius scribbled his thoughts, research evidence shows us that leading a virtuous life is one of the cornerstones of human well-being (eudaimonia). As psychologist Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness, leading a good life means knowing, cultivating, and embodying one’s strengths and virtues. We may say that having a good life and the practice of virtue go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jam (at least, for those who are fans of such a combination).
The good news is that even if you don’t know which virtues and strengths resonate the most with you, you can start your journey toward leading a good life and greater well-being by leaning into the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. They are called “cardinal” because they are the seeds from which all other human virtues stem from. Some of us know them as the Stoic Virtues too because the Stoics were keen on mastering them.
The Psychological Functions of Stoic Virtues
Leading a good life, based on virtue, can help you develop your character and mature your personality. In his book Virtuous Leadership, Alexander Havard states:
“We strengthen our character through the habitual practice of sound moral habits, called ethical or human virtues.”Alexander Havard, Virtuous Leadership
For instance, if you have a personality that propels you toward addictive behaviors, you can moderate that tendency by focusing on the development and practice of temperance and wisdom. Can you reduce your exposure to triggers? How can you come up with a plan to overcome addiction?
Another example. If you are struggling to work on interpersonal boundaries, you can appeal to your sense of justice and courage. Are you being fair to yourself and others by teaching them that it is acceptable to trespass on your personal limits? Can that ignite your courage to ask them for healthier solutions?
Let’s see next how each virtue can be activated and what their psychological functions are.
Wisdom deals with the acquisition and proper use of knowledge. It has the psychological function of helping you make better decisions. Knowing more about what triggers your addictive behaviors and how you can overcome them is an example of how to activate this virtue. You can learn more by reading books, watching documentaries, going to support groups, or booking a therapy session.
Temperance strengthens our capacity to prevent excess or deficiency in any matter. It has the psychological function of subordinating and managing your passions. If you have a tendency to overgive yourself or avoid intimacy at all costs, you can activate this virtue to find the right balance between giving and receiving, sharing and withholding.
Courage is likely the virtue that most elicits an emotional response when practiced. It has the psychological function of helping you stay on track and endure internal or external resistance. Courage requires emotional resilience and the will to stand by your goals. And aspirations in the face of adversity or opposition. If you dream about becoming a writer but everyone seems to suggest otherwise, you can activate the virtue of courage and focus on your vision.
Justice appeals to our civic duties and strengths. It has the psychological function of guaranteeing that every person is given his due. Justice is essential to nurture and develop a healthy community. If you felt harmed or insulted by what someone else did, you can activate this virtue to adjust your behavior and seek different outcomes. The other three virtues need to mediated this one to avoid human injustice.
Is There a Right or Wrong Way of Practicing Stoicism?
Although we might not be able to say there is a right way of practicing stoicism, there is a wrong and sometimes even dysfunctional way of approaching stoicism. This is comprehensible, of course, as no human being is perfect. And human nature alone makes us vulnerable to deviation and reasoning errors.
There is a learning curve and a clear gap between the world of ideas and the world of practical action and wisdom. We may know the talk, and we may preach the talk. But the amount of effort and self-awareness to walk the talk are not only the secret of personal excellence but also the core of human well-being.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, ch. 4
Results of Stoicism the wrong way
Nonetheless, Stoicism has gathered momentum in our postmodern society. This for its potential to increase well-being. And help people relate and manage their mental health in a more positive way. Practical by nature, Stoicism nurtures the idea that consistency and right action can set us on a path of greater meaning and purpose in life.
There is, however, room for misuse or misinterpretation of Stoic principles. Which in turn can give way to poor mental health and decreased well-being. For instance, the idea that human emotion is secondary. Or that events can be broken down into black-and-white facts. These are two examples that can be found among some Stoic enthusiasts. It is important to notice that gray areas exist and are a part of life.
Human psychology is not bulletproof either. As much as we study and aim to practice Stoicism, or any other collection of ideas, there is always a layer of subjectivity that needs to be addressed. Our beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and personal experiences populate this layer. We need to become aware and acquainted with them.
Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’
Consistency and right action need to be joined by mindful awareness and critical thinking. These can be accessed and developed through personal reflection, self-inquiry, and compassionate learning – I know but I also know I don’t know. Combined, these attitudes can guide us back to what matters most, over and over again, while also moving us toward what Aristotle called the “golden mean”: a balanced standpoint between two different extremes.
This is not an easy task, especially for those who have endured and experienced trauma in their life. It requires discipline, patience, compassion, and, more often than not, great doses of self-empathy. It asks us to be strong but also vulnerable. To be kind and yet fair. To be passionate and grounded.
Awareness and critical thinking is needed
Aristotle called our attention to the fine balance between these extremes. Too much courage and you have recklessness; too little of it and you have cowardice. We may go through several dark nights of the soul questioning existence, the natural order of life and the universe. Continuing with the exploration our own path, until we reach a more steady mental and emotional pace.
Here is where awareness and critical thinking need to come in. Because by adopting a “blind” approach to virtue and other Stoic ideals, we may incur and trap ourselves in situations that are more harmful than good. A blind sense of duty or of any of the virtues without a good reality check can make us remain in abusive relationships. It can make us run away from the most authentic expression of ourselves. Failing to grasp when we are patronizing others. Flashing them with our distorted sense of magnanimity or simply striping them away of any sense of worth.
Written by Helena Troi, this post shows a brilliant mind and writer at work. She examines how Stoicism can be practiced the wrong and how we can prevent it. I want to thank her for allowing me to post this on my website.