The Importance of Being Stoic

Dear Sendero,

First off, I want to apologize for my absence of late.

I wish I could easily explain it, but I can’t.

Sure, I could blame it on being busy – and I have been extraordinarily busy, starting with the final preparations for, and then departure, on a four day ride deep into the mountains.

Then there was the Owner’s event here at La Estancia de Cafayate, always a socially demanding affair.

And, slipping further out of ‘retirement’ with each passing day, I have been engaged in a variety of projects for Mauldin Economics.

So, there’s that.

But, in reality, for reasons unclear to me, I have been suffering a mild case of writer’s block. I still write every day, but little flows happily from fingers onto to the screen as is normally the case. Quite the opposite, every letter and every word takes concentration and actual effort.

As a result, over the last month I have assembled a collection of unfinished and half-baked articles that, after several hours of hard labor, just don’t feel worth your time.

I would have better spent my time wandering around the golf course chasing little white balls.

While I am sure my writer’s block will end sooner rather than later, in the interim I have decided to share an oldie, but I think a goodie, an article I wrote a few years back but update below.

It has a very positive and important message that, now that I have re-read it, makes me feel optimistic that my writer’s block will soon be a thing of the past.

Until next time,

David

The Importance of Being Stoic

Originally written in 2012, updated here.

Earlier this week, while the dew was still on the ground, I slipped out for a quick nine holes at the down-market course I belong to.

Given the hour, I had the place to myself except for a trio from a nearby adult housing complex who tee off every morning at 7:30 sharp, the moment the course officially opens.

As I was playing solo, it only took me two holes to catch up, after which my brisk forward progress slowed to the viscosity of the maple syrup so popular in this area.

It was thus, standing on the third tee communing with nature and wondering if the old dear stuck in the right bunker would ever get out, that yet another elderly gentleman landed on the second green and made quick work of it, then somewhat sheepishly (it seemed to me) fiddled with his scorecard, apparently not wishing to disturb my solitude. 

Never minding a bit of company, and realizing that my forward progress was likely to remain hindered – the trio ahead of me being notorious for not encouraging others to pass through and thereby beat them off the course – I waved the new fellow over and invited him to join.

Being hopelessly nosy, it was not very long thereafter that I asked Phil, my new companion, what he did for a living and was informed, after quickly consulting his watch, that exactly one month and one day earlier, he had retired after 40-some years as a housing contractor.

As a consequence, he now spent his days playing golf, exercising, puttering around the house and trying his hand at writing a book.

"So, how's the whole retirement thing working out?" I asked, while waiting for one of the white-haired road blocks ahead to register a score with his third putt.

At which point a cloud formed over his countenance.

"Well, we planned for this for years, but we don't have a lot of money. I think we'll be okay. I think we have enough to cover our cost of living," he replied, adding, "at least I hope we do."

The inflection in his voice spoke volumes about just how uncertain he actually was about his prospects.

A few holes later, while killing time waiting for two of the three active oldsters to hunt down their balls in the copse of pine trees off to the left of the sixth hole, I mentioned conversationally how pleased I was with the Foot Joy Contour Casual™ shoes I recently purchased to replace my old, worn-out shoes.

The new shoes, which look and feel like a sneaker, are not only very comfortable but completely waterproof… which comes in handy when playing while the dew is still on the ground.

"I have a friend who has a pair and loves them," my companion commented, openly admiring the super-soft premium leather uppers and DuraMax™ rubber outsole. "I bought my shoes at the beginning of summer, and they have already lost their waterproofing. In fact, my feet are soaked."

"Well, these are actually quite reasonably priced," I said helpfully, "only about $99."

His look said more than words ever could: A palatable desire to own a pair, but a desire to be left unfulfilled by the cold, hard realization that he just didn't have the money. And probably never will.

While I suspect my golf partner wasn't aware of it, he now belongs to the new class of stoics.

My Introduction to Stoicism

In a recent article I mentioned a young genius I met at a conference along with her father. As you may recall, she entered MIT at 14 years old and graduated at 17, winning a highly contested Thiel Fellowship along the way.

As some of you have asked, and it's readily available in the public domain, her name is Laura Deming, and it's her personal mission to find cures for aging and to commercialize any discoveries. (Laura is now a partner in the Longevity Fund).

In any event, following up on a conversation I had had with Laura at our Summit, I reached out to her father, and a warm and interesting correspondence quickly developed.

In the course of our correspondence, John sent me the unedited text of an interview he did with the New York Times titled "Educating Laura" (FYI, she was homeschooled).

In that interview and in subsequent emails, John mentioned the positive impact his reading of the stoic philosophers has had on how he views the world.

Paraphrasing, his exposure to stoicism has helped him to greatly reduce what he worries about and, as a consequence, live a far more relaxed and contented existence.

Like many people, up until that point I harbored only a loose impression of stoics as rather dour individuals who habitually eschew life's many pleasures in favor of the equivalent of a bread and water diet.

Intrigued by John's references and recognizing a blank spot in my knowledge, I turned my morning study period to the stoics and quickly realized that much of what I thought about the stoics was wrong, and the rest lacked any real appreciation for the intellectual underpinnings of the stoic philosophy.

While a couple of weeks of one-hour-a-day studies in no way qualifies me as anything more than an interested amateur on the topic, I thought that you might find some of what I have learned of interest… and maybe it'll even motivate you to learn more on your own.

For reasons I'll explain momentarily, I believe that stoicism – voluntarily and out of necessity – will once again find wide favor in the degrading Western democracies.

That's because, as you'll read, it offers a philosophically sound and entirely positive operating methodology for those who now find themselves, like my impromptu golf partner, facing what is likely to be a permanent reduction in their previous standard of living.

If you wish to fully comprehend the nuances of stoic philosophy, there is much to learn. Given the time and space constraints of this publication, I can only scratch the surface, but still want to provide you with some sense of what I've discovered about the stoics so far.

For starters, my personal take on the "big idea" of the stoics starts by acknowledging that we are humans. As humans, we share certain undeniable traits with other animals.

We feel hunger. We like sex. We die. We are communal in nature. Yet, unlike other animals, we have the capacity to apply logic and reason to the matters we encounter in our everyday lives.

That ability to reason gives us the capability to make choices based on what we personally believe is right or wrong. It is here that things start to get interesting.

The stoic, you see, believes that the interpretation of right or wrong, good or evil, is entirely an internal affair.

Or, to quote one of the most famous of the stoics, the ex-slave Epictetus, "God has entrusted me with myself."

By extension, then, the stoic doesn't rely on dictates purportedly passed down from on high, or blindly accept as good the arbitrary rules and regulations set out by the ruling elite.

Instead, the stoic uses logic and reason in attempting to understand their own nature, how they fit into the universe, and what is required to live a contented life.

In the first instance, understanding their own nature, a stoic accepts things as they are, not as they might wish them to be. For instance, that they will someday die.

The stoics also understood that we humans are communal animals and that humans do best when they work together. As a result, they believed in interacting in a positive manner with their neighbors.

As to where they fit into the universe, as I interpret it, this simply recognizes that there is a certain holistic aspect to the world we live in, and going with the flow will lead to a more tranquil existence.

In my opinion, it is on the latter point – understanding what's required to live a contented life – where the stoics really shine and offers hope for the new era we have entered.

In this regard, the stoics were early on in identifying and understanding that there are aspects of life they have no control over.

Once they accept they have no control over a thing, a practicing stoic puts it out of his mind.

On that general point, the stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, "Only a fool worries about death," for the simple reason that it's baked in the cake that we all die; it's only a matter of when, and that's nothing we have any control over. No control, no worries.

Instead – and this is where the misimpression so many have of the joyless stoics comes in – the stoic lives in the moment, taking pleasure out of their time with loved ones (as well as the possessions they may own), but they do so with a set-in-cement understanding and acceptance that those loved ones or possessions can vanish in a heartbeat.

Again, Epictetus…

"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will."

Accepting that reality, a stoic doesn't dwell on what the future might hold – because that's out of their control – but lives in the moment.

Desire & Fear

A key tenet of stoicism, is that living a happy, contented life requires keeping both your wants and your fears to a minimum.

On this topic, Epictetus, who is particularly good at putting his thoughts clearly, had much to say…

"Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants."

"The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things."

"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has."

The implications and benefits of "right sizing" one's desires are obvious for someone living in a society that constantly urges us to buy the latest and greatest in everything – comfortable golf shoes included – even if it means going into debt to do so.

That's not to say that wanting something is wrong, but rather that living your life in a constant state of desire – say, for the latest model of iPhone – sets you up for constant disappointment should your desire not be met. In addition, almost by definition it means you are pretty much permanently discontented with that which you already possess.

Similarly, the vast majority of us humans waste time and set themselves up for disappointment by fearing things that are also beyond their control... for example, their own death or that of a loved one. Or the loss of their wealth or health.

A true stoic fears not, because he or she has taken the time to identify and accept those things that they have no control over. Again, no control, no worries… it's just a waste of time.

A stoic would rather spend their time identifying the things that give them pleasure and how to get the most out of those things for as long as they have access to them. But, again, there is nuance in the concept.

As an illustration, a stoic might agree that imbibing a fresh, cold glass or two of Torrontés wine while sitting in a café with friends is an enjoyable thing to do. That enjoyment comes from a combination of flavor, ambience, companions and the soothing effect a glass of wine has on the human mind.

But far too many people come to believe that if a little alcohol is good, then more will be better. Yet that convivial scene just mentioned is, I think you would agree, an entirely different thing than downing a bottle of whiskey night after night, an action that will over time ruin your health and lead only to sadness.

"It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them."

The nuance in that quote, again from Epictetus, is not that you should deny yourself all pleasures… but rather enjoy them in moderation, for that's how to enjoy them most.

The benefits of delaying gratification may have a scientific foundation as well. In the Marshmallow Experiment, researchers at Stanford placed children alone in a room with a single snack.

The kids were informed they would be left alone for 15 minutes and if they could wait until the researcher returned, they could have two snacks.

On the other hand, if they just couldn't wait, they could ring a bell and the researcher would return immediately and the child could eat the single snack. (A number of the children didn't bother ringing the bell; they just gobbled down the snack.)

While the test was originally set up to test one thing, by happenstance some years later the lead researcher stumbled upon a strong correlation between the kids who couldn't wait and a host of lifelong poor choices leading to higher drug use, lower SAT scores, less successful careers, higher divorce rates and so forth.

(Somewhat related, there is another body of research that shows that kids who grow up in high-stress environments overdevelop the part of the brain dealing with flight or fight, resulting in just the sort of pathology that would cause them to fail the Marshmallow Experiment… but I drift.)

I had a very close friend who built a fortune worth on the order of $40 million, then died young of a drug overdose. His wealth meant he could have anything he wanted, and he had no shortage of "things"… yet, with no philosophical underpinnings to his life, he died chasing his transient pleasures, and miserably so.

So, how do you find the day-in, day-out tranquility that is the quest of the stoic?

For starters, spend some time thinking about what you really need in life, versus just those things you want. I have had a lot of fun doing this as part of my morning studies.

As I look at the clutter around me from past fulfilled desires – a motorized canoe, a pool table, a Polaris Ranger, a fishing boat – all of which now sit largely unused, I can only shake my head at the folly of my chasing after material things of marginal utility. (These days my only indulgences are my six horses).

Secondly, learn to understand and accept that the nature of things means that a wide range of outcomes is possible in every aspect of your life… including your every interaction with other humans.

An opportunity to practice being stoic was provided by my family's need to visit a passport office about an hour's drive away to renew a passport last week.

As I knew this would entail interacting with human government agents, I mentally prepared myself for a wide range of possible outcomes, all of which would sync with the nature of humans.

On one end of the range, the agents might be friendly and cooperative, or they could be bland and mediocre.

Or they might be aggressive and antagonistic, even arbitrarily denying us that which we desired – prompt action in renewing the passport ahead of our upcoming trip.

To a stoic, whether the agents are friendly or antagonistic would be irrelevant. That's because you would accept that any of the outcomes mentioned above is very much within the range of possibility.

Thus, the stoic would arrive at the passport office with zero expectations, instead paying attention only to what is within their own control – for instance, by making sure they had the required paperwork in hand.

Furthermore, the stoic would approach the member of officialdom in a spirit of cooperation, because of the undeniable truth that humans do best when cooperating.

If they were then met with an ignorant and agonistic bureaucrat, they might politely try to show the person the error in their logic, without judging the person themselves.

Because, after all, they are only human and thus, by definition, ignorance and antagonism are well within the norm – but they wouldn't get upset because they entered the office knowing that that very outcome was always a possibility.

If, at the end of the interchange, the stoic is denied what they seek, they would not worry about it, but rather go about their business on an alternative path. In our case, the transaction went off smoothly, which was just icing on the cake.

While that may seem overly sheepish, when you ponder the matter from the perspective of living a happy life – a life that is largely free from frustration and fear – it begins to make sense.

In the case above, if I had arrived at the passport office with a pre-determined attitude that the agent was going to be an ignorant government functionary, and that I was going to get my way regardless, I'd have been setting myself up for frustration.

First off, my negative attitude would very likely have been communicated in conscious or unconscious ways to the person I was there to interact with, hurting the chances for cooperation.

Secondly, if things didn't go as planned, my frustration could have easily boiled over… causing my blood pressure to soar and maybe causing me to end up face down with my arms cuffed behind my back.

Now, don't get me wrong. I could be entirely in the right about my expectations – that the bureaucrat should just speed things along smoothly. But that's not what I'm trying to get at.

What I am trying to get at is that the stoics spent their lives studying what it takes to live a joyful life, and came to the conclusion that it begins with accepting the world as it is, and by adopting a mental framework that allows us humans to all but eliminate frustration and worries, thereby living our lives to the fullest.

Put to music, I suspect the stoics would nod in agreement at the title of the classic Rolling Stones hit, You Can't Always Get What You Want (but you can sometimes get what you need).

But I go on too long, so let me move along.

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, author William Irvine makes the valid point that most people go through life without an operational philosophy: we humans just don't think about this stuff very much anymore. And so the masses ultimately confuse passing pleasures with life fulfilled and so spend far too much time and money chasing them.

That lack of an operating philosophy also leaves us, individually and as a society, open to easy manipulation... for example, by banks and governments that urge us to go into debt. Or the media that try to work us up into a frenzy of greed, fear or anger in order to get more eyeballs on their advertising.

What I find refreshing about the stoic philosophy as a foundation for life is that it offers a clear framework for dealing with pretty much whatever life throws your way, starting by taking control of what you can control and not worrying about the rest.

While I have only scratched the surface of the ideals the philosophy contains, here are some additional quotes from Epictetus you might appreciate…

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.

It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.

First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

All religions must be tolerated... for every man must get to heaven in his own way.

Only the educated are free.

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.

To accuse others for one's own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one's education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one's education is complete.

If you wish to be a writer, write.

Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.

Difficulties are things that show a person what they are.

If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.

It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.

If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.

Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.

If thy brother wrongs thee, remember not so much his wrong-doing, but more than ever that he is thy brother.

Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire.

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.

You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.

No man is free who is not master of himself.

He is a drunkard who takes more than three glasses though he be not drunk.

Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.

The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows where he is going.

We should not moor a ship with one anchor, or our life with one hope.

The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.

Practice yourself in little things, and then proceed to greater.

Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.

Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish? Nothing else.

Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the world.

Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time.
Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.

Never in any case say I have lost such a thing, but I have returned it. Is your child dead? It is a return.
Is your wife dead? It is a return. Are you deprived of your estate? Is not this also a return?

Silence is safer than speech.

Control thy passions lest they take vengeance on thee.

For those of you who are interested in learning more about stoics, following is an excerpt from my email correspondence with John Deming, in which he replies to my request for a good starting point in studying the stoics.

As for stoicism, there are two entry points. And by the way, it certainly doesn't hurt to impart stoicism to kids but with one huge caveat that I mentioned in the NY Times responses. Stoicism can easily turn into resignation to one's fate. Wrong! The stoics do not teach that, but it can be one derivative interpretation of their meaning. But that sort of resignation is what killed progress all over Asia for 2,000 years. Buddha came to some of the same conclusions as Chrysippus, the original Greek stoic, but ended up with the concept of nirvana, one of the most counterproductive concepts ever conceived. Mises, by the way, utterly destroys the concept of nirvana and heaven in several places.

First entry is through the modern field of psychology called cognitive therapy pioneered by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. One of the best and most accessible books is Feeling Good by David Burns. Any book by David Burns or Aaron Beck is good.

But when I discovered Epictetus at David Burns' recommendation, I hit gold. As usual, since all the original stoic works are in Latin, the translation makes a huge difference.

Best entry into the original stoics is with one of the later ones, Marcus Aurelius. The best, most accessible translation (for any age) of Marcus Aurelius's thought is the recent edition published by David and Scot Hicks titled The Emperor's Handbook, A New Translation of The Meditations. Unfortunately, it's not available on Kindle.

Another useful entry point is William B. Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which is available on Kindle.

The thing I like about Irvine's book is that he avoids the Buddhist interpretation but gets the heart of the philosophy and its life-changing advice just right, in my opinion.

David again. In addition to reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, I am well into Irvine's book and agree that it's a great overview of the philosophy and the role it can play in living a more fulfilled existence, one that is largely disconnected from the ideals embodied in the now debunked American dream.

Some Concluding Thoughts

As a novice stoic, I know that, given the lay of the land in the degrading democracies and the takeover by all-powerful Orwellian grade governments, there is zero I can do to affect a different outcome. And so, per dear Epictetus, if it is a matter out of my control, then there is nothing to be gained by worrying about it.

There are, however, things that are in my control… just as they are in yours. For example…

  • Begin to discriminate between what you want and what you need. I don't know about you, but my closets are already cluttered with things I thought I really needed but, with even a little passage of time, realize I don't. The more things you own, the more things own you.

  • Manage your expectations. You can't always get what you want – get over it.

  • People are people wherever you go. Don't be too judgmental or disappointed when they act in a way that is consistent with their nature. And don't be surprised if they act out when they find their aspirations foiled… for instance, when they realize that the world they thought they were living in, where they could have everything their hearts desired, is no more.

  • Be calm and measured in all things. You only live once and will someday die and be quickly forgotten. Take it easy, and don't sweat the small stuff.

  • Be polite and cooperative. We humans do best when we work together.

  • Don't get overly attached to anything.  Everything we own and everyone we know can be taken from us tomorrow. That's just the way it is, and there's nothing you can do about it, so appreciate your comforts and your loved ones while you have them.

  • Moderation in all things, including your excesses.  Too much of a good thing is, well, too much of a good thing. Buying every new toy won't make you happy and neither will being immoderate in your pleasures… whether it be adult beverages, sex, even physical exercise – I have a relative who is a total adrenaline junkie and one tick off needing institutionalization as a result of over-exercise.

  • Do what you can to shore up your own finances, then enjoy your life. Based on my direct experience, 99% of the people in the world have no idea what's happening in our highly politicized economy. That gives you a real advantage when it comes to creating portfolio strategies to see you through to the other side of the worst that is coming. And don't forget to diversify internationally and, thereby, politically.

But once you have a strategy, then don't dwell on this stuff… you'll have taken care of everything you control, and worrying about the rest is a waste of time.

I'd like to close by thanking John Deming for bringing the stoics to my attention. As you may be able to tell, it's been highly energizing and plain good fun spending time getting to know the stoics and putting myself through all manner of mental exercises to help me better comprehend their ideas and how those ideas might be useful in my own life. Hopefully you'll find some of this adds value to your life, as well.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required