In How I Read Stoicism, Ed Batista offers some useful guidelines for anyone reading Stoic philosophy to keep in mind.
Stoicism isn’t “stoicism”
Often when we see stoicism used in a contemporary context it’s often a negative attribute ascribed to someone who is void of emotion and therefore seen as passive or unengaged with the world around them. That’s an oversimplification of one of the core virtues of Stoic philosophy; to control our emotions. To challenge this characterisation, Batista encourages us to find out more about the lives of the Stoics. The Daily Stoic has a good introduction in their article Who Were the Stoic Philosophers.
Emotion regulation isn’t suppression
Returning to the theme of keeping our emotions under control, it’s important to recognise that this doesn’t mean burying them.
“Efforts to completely suppress and extinguish an emotional response are typically unsuccessful and can even be counterproductive, exacerbating the undesired feeling and heightening our focus on its causes. Further, a lack of emotional awareness can erode the quality of our thinking.”
Stoicism helps us to develop a valuable skill that Batista calls emotional effectiveness:
“we must be able to sense, comprehend, articulate and express our feelings in ways that help us accomplish our goals. This certainly entails the ability to regulate our emotions, but not to such an extent that we’re seeking to suppress them”
The Stoics were human beings just like us
It can be easy to read classical texts and assign them and their authors a value based on their endurance. And it’s foolish to assume that the Stoic’s were some kind of higher order of man (although I think that’s something I’ve been guilty of) and that these texts hold all the answers:
“Stoicism as a whole challenges us to rise above our frustrations and fears in order to become better versions of ourselves. The awesome difficulty of this task can be demoralizing if we assume that the Stoics themselves accomplished it with ease and are preaching at us from on high (or, worse, failed in the attempt and are lying to us.) Instead, I choose to read the work of the Stoics as testimonials from fellow sufferers who are sharing their struggles, not recounting their triumphs.”
I think it’s important to remember that there’s no end to the journey of self-improvement. That there will be both highs and lows along the way. It’s not in our nature to ever reach a point where we feel completely satisfied and in control, to feel that we couldn’t have done any better. What we can learn from the Stoic’s is how to persevere and keep challenging ourselves to be better.