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Why Stoicism Is Not A Passive Philosophy

We all have things we’re attached to. Think of possessions, places, pursuits, and people in your life (or other things that don’t begin with P) that you couldn’t do without.

Maybe you have worked hard to accumulate material items you’ve always wanted to have, built a good reputation in your community, or cultivated strong relationships with your family.

You appreciate these things but at the same time, you’re terrified of losing them.

Like the two-year-old child who thinks everything is “mine”, you put your arms around what you have and grip it ever tighter, ready to throw a tantrum if any of it is taken away.

These things we’re attached to, that we protect as our own, all have something in common: they are external to us.

As such, we don’t ultimately have control over whether these things in our lives remain with us or are taken away.

They are essentially on loan to us from the universe.

Forces that don’t depend on you can take what you have in an instant. A prized possession could be stolen, an injury could prevent you from practicing your favorite hobby, or a loved one could pass away.

This means the attachment we have to things we can’t ultimately control puts our happiness in the hands of Fate.

To ease the tension of such inflexible attachments, we can choose to view our beloved externals with a kind of appreciative indifference.

The use of the word indifference might sound callous, especially when applied to your attachment to loved ones, but it actually breeds greater love and appreciation for the things you hold dear because you know you need to make the most of them while you have them.

Accepting the reality that we won’t have the external things we love forever frees us from the anxiety that we might lose them. There’s no uncertainty anymore: we know we’ll lose those things eventually.

So, it might seem counterintuitive, but to have the freedom to fully enjoy the things we love, we have to be ready to let them go.

Following on from this, as practicing Stoics we seek to reduce the burden of unwanted events by accepting their occurrence.

We come to terms with what has happened and do our best to understand that it was bound to happen.

This is the essence of the concept of Amor Fati, which the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described as follows:

My formula for what is great in mankind is amor fati: not to wish for anything other than that which is; whether behind, ahead, or for all eternity. Not just to put up with the inevitable — much less to hide it from oneself, for all idealism is lying to oneself in the face of the necessary — but to love it.

A common misunderstanding is equating this attitude with giving up.

If we accept everything then why do anything? To support this argument, some use the image of an emotionless cow standing in the rain, passive and unmoved by its surroundings.

In fact, accepting fate is not the same thing as passivity.

Accepting what happens saves us time. We don’t feel the need to curse fate or complain about our luck when we practice this kind of acceptance.

We don’t spend excessive time in denial, wishing we could change the past.

Instead, we focus on what we can do.

Because accepting what isn’t within your control doesn’t prevent you from affecting what is.

We assess what has happened, we decide on the best response and we actively work to affect the things within our control.

Stoic acceptance doesn’t mean weakness, lying down, or giving in.

It isn’t a final act that halts further progress; it’s the opening act that is the essential prerequisite to moving forward with our lives.

It’s wholehearted cooperation with reality and a refusal to fool ourselves with futile mind games that we can’t possibly win.

It encourages in us the perennial perspective of making the most of whatever we have while we have it and a willing adherence to Epictetus’s advice in chapter 8 of his Enchiridion:

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.