Stoicism: Day 13 – Stoicism is Lonely

My thirteenth ice bath was mostly uneventful. I did feel a bit hurried in the morning as I had a few errands to run and a dinner with a Jesuit priest to go to (more on that in a bit).  The bath definitely had a calming effect. This could be a physiological reaction, or it could be a psychological one. I’m not sure, maybe it’s all in my head, which is okay, because that’s what Stoicism is all about, controlling what goes on in your head.

Stoicism is an incredibly rational and individualistic philosophy. It requires you to focus on your own thoughts in relation to the external world and events. Many of the exercises can be done alone (like negative visualization). The exercises that do require other people generally treat them as a stressor or disturbances (reacting to insults from others).

The individualism and self-reliance of Stoicism are partially what attracted me to it as a good starter to The Ancient Wisdom Project.  It doesn’t require that I join any sort of group, and I could get started right away. That’s why it was the perfect starter month.

This is also one of its biggest flaws. Though I’m sharing my experience in writing, I find myself wishing for other people to talk about it with. Yes, I talk about it with my girlfriend and a few other friends, but since they have zero desire to adopt Stoic values, it’s not that engaging. Plus, a Stoic would not let himself be affected by what others have to say about his efforts, or even what they don’t have to say.

This is not to say Stoics didn’t place an importance on good friendships and relationships. Seneca writes that man needs friends, it is in his nature, but the wise man won’t want friends in the sense that he views it as a necessity.

The wise man needs hands, eyes, and many things that are necessary for his daily use; but he is in want of nothing. For want implies a necessity, and nothing is necessary to the wise man. Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, yet he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible, not, however, that he may live happily; for he will live happily even without friend.

Natural promptings, and not his own selfish needs, draw him into Friendships. For just as other things have for us an inherent attractiveness, so has friendship. As we hate solitude and crave society, as nature draws men to each other, so in this matter also there is an attraction which makes us desirous of friendship. 

It was common in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome for philosophers to lead philosophy schools and teach students their particular brand of knowledge.

These no longer exist. The closest cousins are philosophy departments at universities and religious institutions. There aren’t any Stoic sages to go to when you have questions or concerns about living a Stoic life. The best you have is the words of the Ancients and various people who are currently experimenting with Stoicism (like myself). Just Google “stoicism” and you’ll come across a bunch of blogs and articles by people who adopt certain Stoic practices. Stoicism as an institution has not survived, and I’m not sure Stoics would have cared to institutionalize it.

Unfortunately, this leaves me little opportunity to develop real-world relationships with people who are trying to live by Stoic values or consult Stoic sages who can guide me through this 30-day experiment.

The Catholic Church does not have this problem.

I met with a Jesuit priest yesterday because I was doing some research for my upcoming Catholicism month. I was expecting to have a discussion about different practices I could try for my 30-day experiment, but it didn’t go that way. Instead, he threw me off with this single comment:

I wonder what God has planned for you.

This blew me away. First, because it reframed my project from something I conceived of and planned and executed, to something God or fate or someone outside of myself gave to me. It made me think of this project not as some experiment used to test a hunch I have about ancient wisdom, but rather, an important mission to be used for a higher purpose.

This was my reaction, and I’m not even sure God exists!

I went from a self-centered view of the project to something more divine. And what was even more touching was that this Jesuit Priest, who I’ve only talked to a few times, cared so much about this project and felt it was important, that it was important for me.

It was humbling and touching and it just felt good to have someone care about me and my project.

Stoicism has not given me that feeling, nor do I expect it to. However, its failure to institutionalize and survive in any significant form today leaves its practitioners without the necessary relationships to thrive in a world using only Stoic practices.

It leaves the practitioner to figure things out for himself, which is empowering, but also….lonely.