Putting the Greek back into Stoicism

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However the Greek crisis pans out, it's likely that for the Greeks, things will get worse before they get better - and this is on top of years of austerity, declining incomes and collapsing public services. How do you cope with calamities like this? Stoicism, a Greek-inspired school of philosophy, may hold some answers, writes professor William Irvine.

It was the Greeks who gave us the word "crisis". It is derived from the Greek krinein, meaning "decide", and indeed, the Greek government now has lots of important decisions to make, as the result of years of reckless borrowing from overly-eager lenders.

Its citizens also have some important decisions to make, including how best to deal with the lean times that likely lie ahead. Fortunately for them, the ancient Greeks, besides giving us our word for crisis, provided us with a splendid strategy for dealing with crises: the philosophy known as Stoicism.

Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism does not advocate that we keep a stiff upper lip - that we stand there mutely and impassively, and take whatever the world throws at us. It instead provides us with a number of specific strategies which, if practised, can make our days go better, in both good times and bad.

One component of the Stoic strategy is to distinguish between things we can control and things we can't. Our life, say the Stoics, will be miserable if we spend our time worrying about things over which we have no control. That time and energy is far better spent thinking about things we can affect. To quote Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius, "Nothing is worth doing pointlessly."

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One of the things we have no control over is the past. We cannot alter it. We therefore need to decide whether we are going to spend our life filled with regret over choices we have made in the past, or whether we are going to let go of that past and instead focus our attention on the choices that lie ahead. It ought to be an easy decision to make. It is also a decision that many people, tragically, fail to make.

The Stoics have a simple technique for making our days go better: we should think about how they could have been worse. Notice that I didn't say dwell on how they could have been worse; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence. Instead, we should allow ourselves to entertain flickering thoughts about the loss of our friends, money, lover, job, health - all the things we value.

If we do lose any of these things, we will have been prepared by our negative thinking, and this will likely lessen the blow of our loss; we will, in a sense, have seen it coming. And if we don't lose these things, we will find ourselves far more appreciative of them than would otherwise have been the case.

A life filled with people and things that we appreciate is easy to enjoy. The Stoics were smart enough to realise that we have it in our power to appreciate the life we find ourselves living if we can just bear in mind that things are a lot better than they could have been.

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The Stoics valued self-control, as did most ancient philosophers. If we have self-control, we control ourselves; lack it, and it is someone or something else that controls us. Do we really want to spend the one life we have controlled by someone or something else?

The current Greek crisis can be attributed to a lack of self-control: the Greek government borrowed more money than it could comfortably pay back. Borrowing money, unfortunately, is like using drugs: it feels good at first and feels bad later on. This makes it easy for borrowers to focus their attention on the pleasant present and put off thoughts about a future in which the only choices open to them are painful.

The Stoics thought people could develop self-control by engaging in acts of self-denial. They didn't advocate anything extreme: it was their philosophical rivals the Cynics who suggested doing such things as hugging statues on cold winter days. The Stoics instead advocate that we periodically go out of our way to make ourselves somewhat uncomfortable. Fail to do this, and we will lose our tolerance for discomfort, meaning that the slightest inconvenience will have the power to ruin our day. Those inured to discomfort, the Stoics realised, are almost always happier than those who lead a pampered existence.

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Image caption,
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry said he thought of Spock as a Stoic, but Stoics are not unemotional - they cultivate positive emotions and avoid negative ones

The current Greek crisis will doubtless cause people much discomfort. Many Greeks will respond, as people often do, by bemoaning their fate. The Stoics among them, though, will treat a time of economic austerity as a kind of test. When life throws an obstacle in their way, Stoics do their best to take it in their stride or even to profit from it.

Zeno of Citium was a merchant who found himself in Athens as the result of a shipwreck. While there, he took an interest in philosophy and ended up founding his own school, which became known as the Stoics because he gave his lectures at the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade in the Agora of Athens.

Regarding this turn of events, Zeno subsequently commented that "I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck."

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Image caption,
Zeno of Citium

The Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus is another example of a Stoic who profited from what others would take to be misfortune. This occurred after he somehow managed to annoy Emperor Nero (Tacitus says it was because Nero envied his fame as a philosopher) and was banished to the Greek island of Gyaros, in the Aegean Sea. The island was desolate, bleak, and nearly waterless, a miserable place to be put; indeed, even in the 20th Century, the Greek government used Gyaros as a dumping ground for its leftist enemies.

Instead of letting himself be crushed by his circumstances, Musonius took an interest in Gyaros and its inhabitants, mostly impoverished fishermen. He discovered a new spring and thereby made the island more habitable. Those who visited him reported that they never heard him complain or saw him disheartened. He had transformed what could have been a personal tragedy into a personal triumph.

As they suffer privations in the coming months and years, Greeks should keep Musonius in mind. They may have it bad, but it beats banishment to Gyaros - beats it by a long shot.

Three Stoical strategies

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• Focus on things you can control - get over things that you cannot control

• Bear in mind that things could have been worse

• Learn self-control through occasional acts of self-denial

William Irvine, professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Ohio, is the author of A Guide to the Good Life - the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

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