Monthly Archives: June 2012

Fate Happens. Deal With It

By Tim Raynor, autor of

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

Stoic philosophers were the first to see how our judgments and beliefs shape our emotional lives. They understood how an irrational judgment could turn an isolated incident into an all-consuming passion. This idea is commonplace among psychologists today. It forms the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a popular and effective form of psychological treatment. CBT shows us how to redress and correct the irrational judgments at the basis of distressing and disturbing experiences. By changing our thinking, we can change how we are affected by life itself.

Of course, we can’t control life itself. We can’t control the world. The world is vast, unruly, and massively beyond our control. It constantly reminds us of this by impeding on our lives, shoving us this way and that. The Stoics had a name for this violent realm of forces beyond our control. They called it fate. Human beings are like rafters on the river of fate, carried along by an endless buffet of causes and effects beyond their control. The best that we can do is to prepare ourselves for the ride, mentally and spiritually. We need to cultivate self-control. We need to cultivate our rational powers so as to maintain a tranquil state of mind through the peaks and troughs of fate.

First and foremost, we must learn to see fate as neither good nor bad. Fate happens – that’s all there is to it. We must learn to become indifferent to fate.

Achieving this state of indifference presents the greatest challenge to our rational powers. But it is a battle worth fighting, for the victory at stake is happiness itself.

Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD), the Stoic Emperor of Rome, summed up the Stoic attitude to life and fate in a remarkable passage in his notebooks. Marcus writes:

In a man’s life, his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux, his perception fogged, his bodily composition rotting, his mind a whirligig, his fortune unpredictable, his fame unclear. In short, all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit to a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion.

What then can escort us on our way? One thing and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divine part within us [reason] inviolate and free from harm, [so that we are] master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. …  This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature (Meditations, 2.16).

Marcus’ last point in this passage is difficult to accept. Nothing harmful in nature? Try telling that to the survivors of the 2011 Sendai tsunami in Japan, or the 2010 floods in Pakistan, which killed thousands and displaced millions of people. Try telling it to people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened each day by plagues, storms, and wild animals. If there is nothing harmful in nature, why do we constantly try to protect ourselves from the elements?

These objections are valid, but they miss the point that Marcus wants to make. We must not forget that Nature, for the Stoics, is both rational and divine. Nature, Marcus is saying, does not intend to do us harm. When it comes down to it, the perception of harm is something that we bring to events. If we think of nature as a harmful force, it is because we interpret natural events as harmful. What if we tried to change this point of view? The Stoic way of life is proof that it is possible to do it. Once we overcome our fear of death, we find that everything in nature is as it should be. It is the crooked wood of humanity that needs correction. As Marcus put it in the Meditations:

Let any external thing happen … I myself am not harmed unless I judge this occurrence to be bad: and I can refuse to do so (Meditations, 7.14).

The Stoic attitude towards fate is crystallized in their anecdote about the dog and cart. Imagine a dog tied to a moving cart, the Stoics say. Can the dog be happy, condemned as it is to trot with the cart this way and that? Certainly, the Stoics reply – so long as the dog learns to be indifferent to its fate. Instead of struggling against its bonds, the dog should focus its energies on cultivating its peace of mind (we are, of course, envisaging here a special dog with human powers!). Being tied to a cart is ultimately neither good nor bad. It is thinking that decides the matter. The Stoic dog should focus its energies on the only power it has to control the world – rational judgment – and bravely keep pace with the cart, as if to say: ‘Hey, being tied to a cart – it’s a way of life!’

Indeed, what is the alternative? If the dog does not follow, it will be dragged in any case. The best that it can do is to learn to be indifferent to fate. Epictetus put it this way:

Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and your life will go smoothly (Handbook, 8).

Focus on what you can control and shrug off what you can’t. You’ll find that when fate throws an opportunity your way, you are in a much better position to catch it.

For more on Tim’s writing, visit his blog:

philosophyforchange

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Stoicism and self-control

By Tim Raynor, author of:

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

When a senior politician is charged with adultery today, we expect them to issue a press release, either in self-defense or contrition. Exiled to Corsica on the charge of extra-marital relations with Julia Livilla, sister of the emperor Gaius, the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3BC – 65AD) wrote a letter to his mother, offering philosophical consolation for her grief at being parted from her son. In Stoic style, Seneca emphasized the importance of preparing oneself for sudden challenges, upsets, and changes in life, so that one is not unseated by the shock of their arrival. One must be like a sentry on guard, Seneca advised, always ready for sudden attack. For drastic change, like an enemy ambush, ‘scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict … easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent’ (Letter to Helvia, 5).

Seneca’s Stoic teaching is as relevant today as it was in Roman times. Since we never know when life will take us by surprise, we must always be prepared to meet change with a calm, balanced, philosophical response. People who are incapable of taking a Stoic response to events risk being overcome by the unruly passions that adverse situations tend to produce in us. For example, the other day a friend was driving me through town. Suddenly a car catapulted out of a side-street and cut us off. Instead of apologizing, the offending driver rolled down his window and hurled a torrent of abuse at us before speeding off. I thought that it was hilarious, but my friend was incensed. ‘Don’t let it get to you’, I advised him. But my friend could only see the injustice of it. He had been wronged, and so it made sense for him to be outraged, he insisted. When I saw him again that afternoon, he was worn out and miserable, having spent the whole day fuming about the event.

If my friend had taken a Stoic approach to the traffic incident, he would have questioned his response to the event. He would have asked himself if the incident was really worth getting upset about. Had he followed this line of reflection to the end, he would have concluded that the other driver’s behaviour really had nothing to do with him. It is true that the stranger acted unjustly. It is also true that my friend didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of such abuse. But to assume that it makes sense to feel angry in response to this kind of event is to make a judgment call. This judgment can be questioned and reversed.

We all have the ability to control our judgments and emotional responses. The ability derives from our rational nature: our power to think critically about our experiences and to alter our perspective on them. According to Stoic philosophers, the power of rational judgment is the only true power that we possess in life. All other powers that we possess – such as powers that we derive from our relationships and communities, our money and possessions, our jobs and roles in society – all of these can be taken from us. Take them away, the Stoics argued, and we still have an intrinsic power to maintain a rational state of mind. This intrinsic power is an essential feature of our human nature.

The Stoics valued the rational power within over all other things, even life itself. When the Emperor Nero sentenced Seneca to death, Seneca (who know his time was up) called his wife and children to him, embraced them, and instructed a slave to bring a knife and urn. Seneca took the knife and opened his veins. Legend has it that he spoke on Stoic ethics as he died. Seneca’s calm acceptance of death, passing away without signs of fear or suffering, is the Stoic ideal.

Control your state of mind and you can be happy on the rack, the Stoics used to say. It is a grim teaching, but effective.

The first step to taking self-control the Stoic way is to affirm one’s power of rational judgment, the rational power within. To cultivate the inner strength to maintain a calm and balanced state of mind, you need to celebrate this power over all other things. You should focus on what is within your power of control and disregard everything outside of it. Everything that you cannot control by applying your reason is ultimately out of your hands. It is fate. Don’t worry about fate, the Stoics counselled. Fate happens. Treat it with indifference.

We can reduce this Stoic teaching to three simple principles. You can think of these principles as the ‘golden rules’ of Stoic practical philosophy.

Rule 1: Focus on what you can control.

Rule 2: All you can control is your rational judgment.

Rule 3: What is beyond your control is fate. Fate is none of your business.

Tim’s Blog and details about his new book are available here: http://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com

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