By Tim Raynor, autor of
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.
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