Toolbox Talk: The Modern Stoic

Politics gets emotional. However the emotional part of our brain was designed not for rational thought, but for knee-jerk survival mechanisms. How can we train our brain to think more clearly about politics in our daily lives?

In this episode, Erik and Xander talk Stoicism, a philosophy and thought strategy that has been used for thousands of years by everyone from slaves to emperors to get a grip on the turbulent world around them. You'll learn why Stoicism is so powerful, and you can apply it in your life and conversations today.


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Erik: Today we're going to be talking about the lizard overlords that secretly rule the entire planet.

Welcome everyone to a very special episode of Reconsider, part of the Agora podcast network, where we don't do the thinking for you. But today we're going to be helping you learn how to think a little bit. We're doing a toolbox talk episode. For those of you who don't know what toolbox talks are, what we do is instead of talking about a specific issue we talk about a specific tool that you can use to help your thinking when you're navigating politics.

Xander: Right. Today we're going to be talking about something that's near and dear to my and Erik's heart, which is stoicism. We'll give a little bit of a background on what it is, where it come from, who practiced it, what leaders have been effective using stoic ideas, but then we'll also loop it back into the day to day, talk about how you can use it in your political conversations and discussions and whatnot. And it won't even require you signing up to be a full fledged stoic. There are still things to take from it.

Erik: So today, Xander, we're going to be talking about our emotions.

Xander: Oh god.

Erik: How do you feel right now?

Xander: I feel lovely. I can't wait. I cannot wait to talk about our emotions.

Erik: I think I hear some apprehension in your voice. It's okay, you can open up to me, and our thousands of listeners.

Xander: Exactly. So Erik, what is stoicism?

Erik: Stoicism is a philosophy in its most basic sense. And instead of being a philosophy about, hey, what is love, man? Stoicism is a philosophy about how you as an individual can choose to think about and react to the situations that occur around you and to you. So what it is is it's a guiding framework for how you can choose to interpret, and thereby choose to respond to what happens in the world.

Xander: I think a key part of that is, it does not mean ignoring emotions or pretending that they don't exist. Part of the basic tenet of the philosophy is, these are unavoidable aspects of the human experience. They're going to happen. It's a matter of how our intellectual mind can interpret those responses and those sensations and those experiences .

Erik: Yeah, exactly. Whenever we talk about stoicism, people often think, well that's a little odd. Don't you want to have emotions? And I think the word stoic has been associated with someone who is emotionless. If someone has a stoic calm, they're not having a reaction. So the word's drifted a little bit from when it was used in the third century BC in Greece, but the philosophy has a whole lot of very applicable advice for us today, particularly in the realm of politics. And I think it's particularly applicable today because today everyone is really angry.

Xander: I'm furious. You can't handle my fury.

Erik: You're always mad.

Xander: I'm so angry right now.

Erik: And the reason we're angry is because so many people are so wrong!

Xander: Yeah, and if my emotions tell me anything, Erik, it's that everyone else is wrong all the time and I'm right, right?

Erik: Right. Right. And this is not the only time in the United States that everyone's been really angry about politics. From what we hear from some folks that are a little older is that the 1960s was way worse. But emotions are really hot right now, and it seems that having an emotional reaction that is uncontrolled or unthought about, and then acting on that emotional reaction is becoming more and more a part of US politics, and perhaps elsewhere as well, but we're going to talk about the United States because we know it.

Xander: Right. So in particular we want to talk about how emotions can help and harm in politics. There currently seems to be this growing trend right now that, there's a consensus that one has a right to be angry, and maybe even a duty, given how they feel and respond to the political environment in which they find themselves.

Erik: You may have found yourself in some situations, maybe with some friends at a party, where everyone's really mad about some event that happened that, months later you kind of know people aren't going to care about any more, they'll have found something new to be mad about, but everyone really wants to show how mad they are, and you're kind of expected to show that you're mad too.

Xander: I'm so woke, man, are you woke? Have you woken up?

Erik: Exactly. Red pill, whatever it is. And there seems to be this sense that if you're not sufficiently outraged or worked up about something, you must not care about something that's very deep and important to your friends or to your community. I think we worry that it's created a bit of a vicious cycle.

Xander: We're going to discuss a little bit about how stoicism can be used to approach this anger that's almost expected, or this anger that certainly everyone feels at some point when they're talking about politics, talk about how it can be used as a tool, a tool that people from slaves to emperors have used for millennia to cope with really challenging circumstances to lead and thrive in the face of either really glorious circumstances or really just horrible despairs and injustices.

Erik: Yeah, and it's something that Xander and I both try to use and are constantly practicing. We're going to be talking to you guys not from the perspective of sages, but from the perspective of really philosophical amateurs that are just like most of the people listening here, just trying to get through life and get through the political chaos that we're feeling today, and also are trying to be as effective as possible. And so this is a tool I think is really useful for both your own sanity and for your effectiveness in the political sphere.

Xander: Right. So what happens when you're angry, Erik?

Erik: Well there's a physiological reaction associated with being angry. It's an evolutionary thing that was built into us over countless millennia as a great reaction to when we're in mortal danger and we need to fight, we need to be able to potentially do violent harm in order to protect ourselves. And this physiological reaction causes our heart rate to go up, it causes adrenaline to pump through our veins and other hormones to run through us in order to change how our brain's working, from being a rational, thoughtful, hey I wonder how we should deal with this thing to a very quick thinking, very aggressive, very direct mechanism, because if you don't act quickly in these kinds of life or death situations, it's death. And so when we're angry our brains actually change substantially, or at least the chemistry in our brains changes substantially, and the parts of our brain that we use change.

Xander: Yeah, and I think something to add to that is that it's not just with anger, it's with other types of emotions too, they all have a tendency to ... this might sound obvious, but color our experiences in a certain way such that it makes it difficult to see that they're even there. So it's not just that anger will cloud your judgment, it's that it also makes it more difficult to recognize that you're angry and therefore your judgment is affected at that particular moment.

Erik: Exactly, and so this anger, it actually turns off the part of our brain that's really good at thinking about and solving puzzles and being strategic and choosing between a whole lot of different options in a rational way. We are both blinded and blinded to the fact that we are blinded.

Xander: I don't know about you, man, I'm totally woke. This is a new thing that I just learned that people are saying, to be woke.

Erik: Have you heard about red pill?

Xander: I thought you were referencing The Matrix, am I too old?

Erik: No, it's back. Red pill is back, and I think it's more of an alt right thing. Don't hold me to that, but if you've taken the red pill, you see reality for what it really is, and therefore you are part of whatever very specific political interpretation. Like this political interpretation, it is the red pilled one. You are red pilled.

Xander: I'm going to take the liberty of taking a quick tangent. I made some joke the other day on my friend's Facebook, some comment he made.

Erik: That's always a bad idea.

Xander: No, this one actually turned out to be all right. I have grown as an individual, you see. I made some comment about, it was a response to him saying something, how can people etc etc, and I go it's definitely the lizard people, man. The reptilians have taken over the planet. That was just kind of a joke, and in response someone posted, they were obviously joking around as well, but these things exist, a link to this ... it was like a 50 page long infinite scroll web page about how the reptilians are actually, they have infiltrated elite society. And I spent a good 15 minutes reading this, and it was the craziest thing I've come across in a long time.

Erik: It's a thing. People actually believe it. Lizard people, running society.

Xander: It just makes sense, man. All right, sorry. So stoicism.

Erik: Tangent over. I think there's a case to be made that your emotional response to something doesn't change it. Something is what it is, and whatever story you tell or emotion you have about it or judgment you pass about it doesn't change its nature, it just is what it is. And one of the ways that I often think about this when I'm having an emotional reaction is, in this great movie Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks is the lawyer helping the Russian spy have his rights defended, and they're sitting in a holding cell and Tom Hanks is talking about yeah it's treason so you could die. And he goes, yeah okay. And at some point Tom Hanks goes, aren't you worried? And the spy looks up and replies to him, would it help? I've always loved that, because it helps me remind myself, is it going to help me right now to have this emotional reaction? Is this going to make my situation better, is it going to change reality around me?

Xander: Right, so then the question is, how much can we actually control our emotions? If it's only a little, can we at least then manage how we react or respond to them?

Erik: Yeah, one of the really exciting things about a lot of recent neuroscience is that it's showing that over time, much like exercising a muscle, we can exert more control over our emotions, or be able to shorten the duration of negative emotions. So if we become angry or sad or upset, instead of ... Ice cream falls on the ground, and instead of throwing a temper tantrum for 30 minutes we're able to say oh god, okay I'm over it. And shorten that period about which we are upset. So there is I think a lot of hope for, hey, we'll never exert perfect control, but over time if we practice we're going to be able to get better at being in command of our emotions rather than letting them be in command of us.

Xander: But to be fair that really depends on the flavor of the ice cream that you've dropped on the floor.

Erik: That's true, if you drop some butter pecan, it's just ...

Xander: Tragedy.

Erik: Incredible tragedy. Months of mourning. And that brings us to another interesting question, and I think one of them is, do you have a right to be angry? Is it right and good and proper and just to be angry in response to something you perceive as a moral or political outrage?

Xander: Yeah, well I think it depends on what your objectives are. If that's the story you want to tell yourself that's fine, and maybe that helps some people be vocal in a way that they wouldn't in other circumstances. And it certainly, in terms of do you actually have a right? Yeah, it's a free country. You have a right to do anything that doesn't seriously harm someone else. Well, in theory. But having the right to do something still doesn't mean that it's advantageous to either the national political dialog or your individual circumstance and your mental sanity responding to that national political dialog. Having some degree of sanity when it comes to politics is ultimately somewhat necessary, right, if you're going to maintain healthy political discussions over a longer period of time, so that also matters.

Erik: The other question I really like to ask myself is, if I could choose to have an emotion right now, what would that emotion be? If I thought of emotions as tools that I can use to accomplish my goals, be they my personal internal goals or my goals for the world, what would I choose? And so in response to a particular outrage or problem, would you choose to be angry or would you choose to, say, have a cool level head about it?

Xander: Yeah, so needless to say, this all takes some degree of conscious effort, to acquaint ourselves with ... it's more like what our internal sensations are and our moment to moment experiences are as we experience emotions. That's not easy. We're certainly not claiming to be experts at it. But I think even with the recognition that something like this might be impossible to do all the time in the long run, I think there are still benefits to making the effort, even if you only encounter imperfect progress.

Erik: And there are lots of tools, more than ever, obviously, to develop our skills in improving our emotion awareness, like Xander was talking about. Being in tune with your experience, and being able to recognize, oh I'm angry right now. And our self control, where you can say I'm angry and do I want to be angry anymore? We have a ton of reading in the show notes that we encourage you to go look at, so these are books that are near and dear to our hearts, that we've read, that we've practiced. Much of it comes from Buddhism, much of it comes from stoicism of ancient Rome, and a lot of it actually comes from modern cognitive psychology that's put a lot of these ideas and the practices, in particular things like meditation, to the test, to be able to understand how they affect people's reality. And so it's pretty exciting stuff. But first things first, a quick historical primer. What is stoicism?

Xander: So like you said, the idea of being stoic often gets a bad rap, because it has come to mean in colloquial language someone who's emotionless. Sometimes that can be positive, sometimes it can be negative, but in the face of things that would generally generate great emotion in most people.

Erik: And where stoicism originally came from, this word actually has roots in the third century BC, where Xeno of Cytium? Where Xeno of Cytium sat on a porch and talked about these questions like, what emotion would I choose to have in response to certain situations? This kind of questioning became so popular that a whole school of philosophy called stoicism grew from it. And I mention the porch because in Attic Greek, stoic is porch. And stoicism and the societies discussing it became wildly popular in Rome, where it was a guiding light philosophy for, as we mentioned before, people from slaves to emperors. And it had difference slightly from and had a very friendly rivalry with epicureanism, the latter of which is about avoiding all the crappy parts of life, and having this secluded life of thought and friendship, rather than learning how to bear life stoically and charge back into it. And much like stoicism, epicureanism actually has a bit of a bad rap as well, because it ended up becoming associated with eating and drinking and debauchery, when it's in fact about living a fairly quiet, thoughtful, contemplative life with a few friends and simple meals.

Xander: Contemplate this, is it pronounced contemplative or contemplative?

Erik: I don't know. Is it contemplative? I've always thought it was contemplative.

Xander: I thought you said contemplative.

Erik: Oh I might have. I don't know.

Xander: I actually don't know. Contemplate it.

Erik: Okay, well, someone tweet us the answer.

Xander: Thanks. So what is stoicism? We've talked about where it comes from. First off, this is all going to be a great summary. There are books and books and books written on it. So take this with a grain of salt. But the stoics make the case that no event, no circumstance, no situation is inherently good or bad. We only tell stories to ourselves in our own mind, or we have interpretations about those events, which ascribe some sort of qualitative meaning to them. So the conclusion of this is that reality itself is just what it is. There is no value that is intrinsically attached to it, and all of your value judgments in response to these circumstances are your own.

Erik: And one of the interesting conclusions that you can draw from this with some work is that your well being, your happiness, your peace, your flourish and your prosperity, does not depend on any particular external circumstance. You don't need anything from the world to be whole or complete or even content. Everything that you need to be content and be happy is in your own mind, and is something that cannot be taken from you. And this idea was wildly popular among the educated slave class of Rome, who literally were slaves all their lives but smart enough to be able to have ... many of them were scribes and such so they were great readers and writers, so they read about stoicism, and it was a way that they were able to look at their lives and say, hey I don't have control over my external circumstances, but I do have what I need inside of me, my own reason in order to be happy.

Xander: One of the big names in stoicism was a guy named Epictetus and he was, as you described, he was a slave. He was obviously an educated and intelligent slave, but one only has so much control over their circumstances at that point. And I think one of the things that really interests me about stoicism is the big names, who has practiced it in history. Because while Epictetus was one of the big names, he wasn't the first. The big name that came immediately after him was Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman emperor at the height of the Roman empire's might. You could arguably make the case that he was the most powerful in the world at that time, and much of his intellectual influences came from this guy Epictetus, 120, 130 years earlier who was a slave.

Erik: Yeah, what's really interesting about Aurelius is you can read his book Meditations, which is essentially his diary. He's on the banks of the Danube in the winter, fighting barbarians, in a military camp. It's not comfortable living here, for this guy who is sick all the time, but you generally consider one of the five ... sorry. Very strictly considered one of the five good emperors of Rome. Really great guy, fantastic, everyone says so, amazing. And one of the things he talks about in Meditations is, he recognizes that even though he's allegedly the most powerful man in the world, there is so much of his own life, and in particular the world around him that he's expected to have command over that is completely outside of his control. So he's this incredibly humble guy for realizing the limitations of human power and our ability to change our circumstances. He was big into reminding himself constantly that, hey, at this moment the circumstances are what they are. All I can choose is, what am I going to do next?

And so what's interesting is that from the perspective of the slave this could seem a philosophy of total fatalism. Don't do anything, nothing's in my control. But what it really is is it's a philosophy of judgment and selection. And I don't mean value judgment, but I mean looking at the world critically and saying, okay, this is really what things are. What can I actually do in response, and what do I have to accept? What do I have to choose, hey this is just the way it is. For example, the sun's going to set at a certain time today. Nothing is going to be done about that. Whether I like it or not, whether I'd rather it stay up longer or shorter, doesn't matter. And what is the stuff that as it's happening or in response to it having happened I can choose to attempt to influence? And so far from being a truly fatalistic or life denying philosophy, this was a life affirming philosophy about, rather than just flailing in response to everything, choosing what you can influence and how you're going to influence.

So if you've read Aristotle, this is a lot ... the stoics were a lot like Aristotle in that they believed that humans are at their best when they're following their rational nature. And their nature is the universe and the way things are, not just trees and stuff. They believed that man has a rational nature, and that just as a knife is best when it is sharp and cutting things, man is best when man is using one's rational mind to participate in society and to treat others fairly, justly, and to make the world a better place.

Xander: All right so the idea is, if this is human nature, if this is the aspect of human nature where when implemented or employed the most, human beings are at their best, the idea is how to live more in tune with this nature. How to use your reason to interpret the world around you, and how to be an active and productive ... This was the same essentially as being an active part of society, which in the minds of these people was important because we are social animals. So the idea is to help others as much as possible, and to not react negatively to things that are outside of your control, because we essentially gain no benefit from it.

Erik: Yeah, it's fundamentally irrational to look at something that's not in your control as something that is, and feel pain from it. Because that pain is a rejection of reality. It's saying I don't want this to be true. But it is true. And so the rational being threfore in the stoic perspective accepts things as they are without judgment. This means that stoics believe that humans are at their best, their happiest, their most at peace when they're not compelled by desire, which is wanting something to be different, fear, which is wanting somebody to be different, or other negative emotions that are a form of rejecting reality now and wishing idly that reality were different from the way it is. So they believed that negative emotions arise when our expectations and the story we tell in our head about the way things should be is different from the way things are when that doesn't make sense.

Xander: So the idea is, the stoic needs to cultivate some ability to suspend judgment of how good or bad something is in the immediate sense. Because we respond to things often emotionally than our rational mind can interpret it. And by doing this, essentially give ourselves enough time to employ our ability to use reason rather than just this instantaneous initial emotional reaction. And that enables stoics to be the thinkers and the planners and the strategists in a room full of people that are basically going crazy and losing their minds because of some really challenging circumstance. Now this does not mean that one pretends or should pretend that emotions do not exist, because they do. Rather, it means trying to check them when they are ... when you have a reaction to something that you can't truly control and your emotions are getting in the way of either you interpreting that circumstance or finding a more reasonable way to react to it.

Erik: Yeah, and reasonable in this case means effective. So if you read something on the news that is happening on the other side of the world, or it's one guy did one bad thing and it's now over, and you're really mad and you're really caught up by it, this is just distracting you. It doesn't actually help you make the world a better place. And so being able to see that emotion for what it is, put it aside and say okay that thing happened, it's outside of my control, I need to focus on what's in my control, is one of the ways that stoics believe humans can be most effective in trying to change the world. And so one of the big questions that stoics have to grapple with, that everyone has to grapple with but stoics do grapple with, is what's in our control and what's not in our control?

Xander: Right, because one really central tenet of stoicism is determining what you can actually control. And the idea here is, if you have negative interpretations to something that's truly out of your control, you are causing yourself undue mental anguish. There's nothing you can do about it. It's better just to accept that the circumstance is as it is, and move on. This was a concept laid out by Epictetus, the Roman slave, and coming from him from that point of view, you can kind of understand how this sort of thing would be a useful practical philosophy. And what we've mentioned is that what's interesting is that as time went on and as this philosophy was picked up by more people, including a later Roman emperor, they nonetheless found that the nature of their existence meant that there were still things that were outside their control. And a lot of what Marcus Aurelius writes on is essentially what rational tools you can use to determine what those things are and focus instead on the things that he could control.

Erik: What's really interesting I think about Aurelius's work is he also, because he had wine and people, he'd show up everywhere and people would throw him parades just because of his title, is he realized that the seemingly good things aren't in our control either, and they don't really mean anything for us. He realized his life was not actually better because people would clap for him when he'd walk in a room. He in fact said listen to the applause, how empty it sounds.

Xander: That's a good line.

Erik: Yeah. So he realized that just as this bad thing happening off somewhere else was outside of his control and didn't have to impact him, the seemingly good things had no power over him either. And that's important in part because he knew that they were temporary, that we would all age and that fortune would turn, seemingly bad things would happen. People we love die, we get sick, we get hurt, we die, and it was by not being attached to these seemingly good things, by realizing their lack of power over our reality, over what's important, that he was able to also keep his head from swelling as emperor, and keep himself from being attached to the drapery and the frill of it, and just get on with his job. One of the famous Roman lines is, all glory is fleeting.

And so you can synthesize these to approach what's in your control, what's not, what matters and what doesn't. Obviously once something has happened it must be outside of your control. It's in the past. If it's happening right now you know it's going to end, because all things end. But it doesn't mean that all of the future is outside of your control. The stoic approach to these events is to understand the present as it is, and use reason to choose how to act most effectively in response, short circuiting the emotional mayhem of either rejecting something for what it is or clinging to what it is right now, say it's the applause. And you say what action can I take that will make my life a better place for me or the world a better place for everyone?

Xander: So that said, we've talked about what stoicism was, where it came from. How can you apply stoicism to politics today and to your own political discourse?

Erik: One of the things I really like to do as an exercise for myself in thinking about how I want to act and think in response to stuff is, I like to imagine the political leaders that I admire most, today and throughout history ... If we look back throughout history many of the most celebrated political leaders, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Simon Bolivar, one thing that all these people had in common was their ability to bear incredible hardship, difficulty, challenge, anxiety, threat, etc with grace. And when everyone else, in the heat of battle or under the blitz, or being beaten by British troops, they were able to keep a cool head and decide on what action they were capable of taking in response to this crisis, and they did it. And this made them rocks that others leaned on. This is what made them leaders. When others were panicking or in distress, these guys had gravity that others naturally gravitated towards.

And often of course the things we see in them is they make speeches or take action that may have even been designed to make others emotional, because they needed to incite mass action. And you may have heard a lot of emotion in their voice. This is great, because of course stoics aren't about not being emotional. They're about choosing what actions to take, and if that means bringing emotion into their action, they do it. And so these emotions became very powerful tools that they got to use in order to affect great change in the world, rather than uncontrollable forces that controlled them.

Xander: So let's take one aspect of stoicism and think about how we can apply it to political conversations. So this idea of what's in your control and what is not in your control, right? Think about the last time you had a political conversation with your friend and it didn't end up ruining the night. When you approach this conversation, you can imagine that often most people's goals are to try to convince the other person that their position is the correct one. And it seems reasonable within this context to therefore approach these discussions by applying strict reason to the issue, disproving what makes no sense and approving of what does make sense. However even with this approach it will prove less effective if the person that you're having a conversation with is not willing to change their mind in the moment. And recognizing this means recognizing that this is an aspect of the conversation that is outside of your control.

If that seems absurd to you, think about the last time someone else convinced you in the moment to change your mind, when having a conversation about politics. What usually happens in these circumstances instead is there's a back and forth that becomes increasingly heated. Neither party is clearly going to back down at a certain point, and then that just fuels your anger and you become more upset because this other person is clearly, clearly being thick headed.

Erik: Yeah, and so the stoic framework makes the case that this kind of thinking is almost a form of insanity. Because what it is is it's reality denying. We know that we don't often change our minds about politics in the moment. We know that we're attached to our political positions, we feel very strongly about them that they're right, that they're not only correct but morally righteous, and when we have a conversation with someone who's come from a different place, who's had different experiences and therefore built up a different notion, we come off surprised and upset that they haven't changed their minds, when part of us already knows that this is already hard, and this seeming contradiction comes from in the stoic case a lack of acceptance of reality for what it is, and therefore causes us to have these negative emotions and be less effective.

Xander: So in circumstances like these, what is actually in your control? Well, if you recognize what the other person wants, you can, even if you know that there's going to be this aspect of the conversation that you can't change their mind in the moment, you can nonetheless move to build a relationship with that person, and that can give you opportunities in the future in which you can change their mind. Or at the very least it let's you avoid the social turmoil of that particular moment and let you move past what could have potentially hindered developing a closer bond with someone.

Erik: One of the models I really like using for the art of influencing is the sales person, because the sales person is in a position where they have to influence someone to make often a very important decision or change their minds about something because they need to eat. And when you need to eat, your motivations change. You're actually thinking about winning rather than saving face, rather than getting points, etc. And what sales people do in these things called complex sales, which are when you know it's going to take a long time to get someone on board with something, like making a million dollar purchase, what they do is they spend a lot of time up front developing relationships, understanding the other person's perspective, learning about them and coming to appreciate and empathize with them before they try to actually make their sale. This is what people who are good at this do, and it's because they're not emotionally attached to "being right," what they're attached to is, winning in the end. And so they don't get emotional or they're able to set aside their emotions when the going gets tough or someone doesn't agree with them and say what is the thing that I'm going to do next to make progress in this way?

Xander: Right, now this doesn't mean sidestepping challenging negotiations or not engaging on a substantial topic because you're afraid it's going to ruin the mood or something like that. But rather it means understanding which approach is most likely to work in which circumstances, depending on what your own goals are.

Erik: Yeah, so if you're not letting yourself get emotionally heated in a conversation but instead thinking about your broader goal, you can consider today or in your next conversation with someone who disagrees with you, what's the thing that you can do to make progress? It could be for example to get someone to ask themselves an interesting question that they hadn't considered before, give them something to think about that they can stew on by themselves, because indeed we all need time to digest. And in the sales process people know this. You leave someone alone and let them stew. Or just let them know that changing their mind doesn't mean that they're going to lose points with your or that you're going to say I told you so or give them a hard time. And thereby what you do is you help them loosen their own emotional hold on their position. All of these are tactics that start to become more clear to you when you are acting stoically and thinking about your broader goal, and what is in your control when you're having a conversation.

Xander: If a basic tenet of stoicism is understanding what's in your control and what isn't, I think this raises a question that Erik and I have kicked back between the two of us before and which we disagree a little bit on, so that'll come out here in a minute. But I think that there is a risk of stoicism, which actually says more about the applicability of the philosophy, rather how to use the philosophy in a successful way. So if the goal is to understand through the application of reason what events are within your control and which aren't, I think there's a risk that, or people might think there's a risk, that you assume that too much is outside of your control when in fact it isn't. It might be easier, but it could lead to apathy.

If, after all, you can't influence events X Y and Z, then why expend the energy worrying about them? And I think the problem with thinking about, and I think it is a really risk, is why I bring it up, but the issue of thinking about it this way is that sometimes you may not actually be able to influence event X, but you can influence event Y, however you will not learn about your control over event Y until after expending a fair degree of energy and effort on both of them. So how then to overcome this risk of apathy in applying stoic thought? This is why Marcus Aurelius stresses the importance of living a life of the mind, constantly questioning your assumptions, and seeking the truth in things to the extent possible. Because if you're not constantly sharpening and honing your reasoning abilities, I think you're likely to misinterpret what is in your control and what isn't, and this will lead you to fall out of harmony with your nature, using the stoic vocabulary. That is, to react negatively to the wrong things, or the things that you can't actually control.

Erik: Yeah, or to know that something's in your control and to make decisions that lead to harm rather than to benefit. That's just as big a risk.

Xander: So I think up to this point Erik and I tend to agree, and I will now present the point where I think I tend to disagree with him on, and we'll give you both of these perspectives and you can think what you will. Now in my mind, this risk of apathy if you're not able to effectively understand what events are and are not in your control, I think this implies that stoicism is not a philosophy that someone who is very uninitiated in life can practice successfully. I think it requires the experience of multiple attempts and failures, pushing yourself to a limit, thinking that something is possible only to learn that it isn't, or pushing yourself beyond your limits thinking something is impossible and only later finding out that it was possible. This logic can be trained, or rather logic, reason itself can be trained, but an understanding of the world must ... it needs to be shaped by a rich variety of experiences, and I think that makes it more challenging to understand what's in your control and what isn't, unless you've lived a certain amount.

Erik: Yeah, and my case is that, I certainly agree that when you know less about the world, when you have less experience, you're not going to be as effective in anything that you do. This is shy we want experienced people being air traffic controllers and rocket scientists and stuff, right? This is always true. But I believe that regardless of what level of experience you have in life, you're always better off with the stoic approach, and here's why. Imagine whether you have life experience or not, and you're approaching the world from the opposite perspective. You're letting your emotions dictate what you think is in your control and not, and letting your emotions dictate how you react to something, what action you take. This is an animal brain. It's something that comes from our evolution, and it's now in control about how you're going to feel and what you're going to do. You're going to take action or not take action without considering at all what's in your control and what's out of it, because you're not using that stoic method of thinking to parse that out and judge it. So you're mostly going to be wasting your time.

In fact I think so often we take action that wastes our time, whether it's dedicated action or whether it's sort of slacktivist action, like posting on Facebook or complaining on Twitter, or getting some good one liner in that like, oh we sure showed them, or writing some article that says so and so blasts such and such a position. We do this stuff, and when we're questioned about it we look back and we say yeah yeah yeah, I know that wasn't going to change anything, but it was worth it anyway. People are so used to being ineffective that they begin to claim that their efforts are worthwhile even though they know that they're kind of useless.

Xander: So with these two takes in mind, regardless of which make more sense to you, I think you can draw similar implications from both of them, as relates to the requirement of life experience in practice using stoicism. And that means that to practice stoicism or to attempt to practice stoicism requires the commitment that at least in the beginning cultivating an ability to both crave and desire something sufficiently, and that is to have an emotional attachment to it enough, in order to apply the amount of energy, the incredible effort in order to attempt to achieve it, that energy and desire needs to be balanced by a willingness to abandon that effort without heartbreak if you discover that the objective is impossible. Do these both all the while holding in mind that a willingness to abandon a goal must not lead to a premature abandonment of it.

Erik: I agree. I think this is a necessary path for the thoughtful person or the stoic to take, that we all have to be prepared to attempt action, knowing that it could fail. I think that you can apply reason to say that, hey, I can never be certain whether I'm going to successfully influence something. You never know. You could on your way over to the thing that's the sure fire click the button you could get hit by a bus. Everything is uncertain ultimately. And if we accept that things are uncertain, even the stoic is willing to say, I think this one seems more likely or this seems less likely, or this seems like the best way to use my time of all the things that I could influence.

And we're going to make mistakes, and I think we can all accept that we're going to at times not take action when we learn we should've, and we're going to take action when we're going to learn later that it was the wrong action, or that we should have taken acton on something completely different from what we took action. And I agree that this process of learning and being deliberate about the learning, and being deliberate about knowing that we're taking action with risk, with uncertainty, that it might fail and that we might need to let go and move on because something else seems like a better move later is definitely important, and definitely something that's very difficult to develop. But I think there are no short cuts to it, certainly.

Xander: Yeah, and to me that means that stoicism is really only something that can be practiced gradually through life, which is ultimately why it's a philosophy that appeals to me. It holds I think greater practical applicability the more life experience you have, the more you push yourself, the more you realize your boundaries, and the more you recognize ultimately again what things are beyond the control of any one person, yourself, and what things are within your control.

Erik: Yeah, and I think that's one of the beautiful things about stoicism, and some other similar ways of looking at things. We mentioned Buddhism, which tends to be a little bit more of a retreating kind of philosophy, especially from the Theravada perspective. But for the thoughtful, rational person, we know that we're going to become more powerful over time through a series of making mistakes, through a series of learning, through a series of developing life experience, and it's exciting to know I think that if you are thoughtful and if you are committed to learning and thinking that you're going to become more powerful over time, and that in the future you're going to be able to influence far more over what's really important, and also to have a better sense of what's really important than you do now.

Xander: Right, and for frankly a lot of people, the realm of what lies beyond their control may turn out to be very little. Some people just have that much power. But when I think of this, I remind myself that even the most powerful man on the planet, Marcus Aurelius at the time, and arguably the most famous stoic, recognized his own limits, and recognized that regardless of who he was, this philosophy of recognizing your limitations and the benefits that it can accrue to you as a result of that was still useful to him.

Erik: So for those of you who are interested in learning more about stoicism or also the different ways of thinking about how to interpret the world and how to choose how you interpret the world and what your emotional reactions are, including Buddhism and some modern psychology, we've got tons of great reading in the show notes. All stuff that Xander and I have read and loved. We encourage you to go get them. We're not getting any commission for them, we just think they're great books. So go to, click the link for this show, The Modern Stoic, and you'll be able to see in the bottom of the page on the show notes links to all these great books that I hope some of y'all will pick up. Tweet us at ReconsiderPod, or find us on Facebook there as well with your thoughts, especially if you've done some reading before, you disagree, we'd love to hear what you think.

Xander: And with that, remember, don't let the pundits do the thinking for you. Pause and reconsider. This is Xander, signing off.

Erik: And this is Erik, signing off.