I could have used the wisdom of the Stoics when I was younger. When I was a kid, I lived in a remote part of the English countryside, surrounded by farmland, fields, hills and the nostalgic smell of cows.

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
~ Epictetus

I had a friend who lived on the outskirts of our little village, and to get to his house, I had to take a 20 minute walk across a few grassy fields and down some gravel tracks.

Normally there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the journey, I did it all the time. However, there was one trip that has stayed with me. One event that has downloaded itself permanently in my memory.

During a summer when I was around 14 or 15, I was walking back from my friends house. There was nothing that stood out about the day. It looked like a normal summer afternoon, the weather was mild, and the sky was clear.

However, two thirds of the way through the journey I saw a bull. This wasn’t strange, bulls were sometimes moved into these fields to keep them away from the other livestock. The problem was that I was in the middle of the field, and the bull realised there was a small human in its territory.

It charged me. I s**t myself.

Frozen from the initial shock of seeing a 2,500lb meat-truck steaming towards me, something clicked unconsciously, and I started to sprint to the nearest fence.

The bull was faster, it was gaining ground more rapidly than I could escape. However, the adrenaline in my system helped power my legs to launch me over a row of barbed wire, out of danger, and into a row of hedges.

I was safe.

This memory has stuck with me. It’s a good example of the response we have to danger, and the hijacking of our system to protect us from harm.

But how do the Stoics respond to this blatant loss of control in the face of a threat? What do they think about our survival instinct that hijacks our body and mind?

Luckily there is some existing work on the topic.

Stoicism & Our Two Responses:

Whenever you are in danger, or experience a threat, you will go through two stages of response:

  1. You will instinctively and involuntary react

  2. You will consciously respond

Response 1: Involuntary Reaction

We’ve all seen action movies where the protagonist calmly walks away from an explosion in slow motion without looking back, or they catch a punch without flinching, or face down hundreds of bad guys with a steady heart rate and a smug face.

This is great in movies, it’s not so good in real life. You flinch to protect yourself, you jump at loud noises to make sure you’re alert to danger, and your eyes widen to ensure you’re seeing as much of the threat as possible.

Try and remember the last time something made you jump. It might have been that horror movie your friend made you watch, a car stopping suddenly in front of you, or simply catching a reflection of yourself too early in the morning.

That initial jump is reflexive, it’s your body’s instinctive response to a potential threat.

You have little to no control over that initial response. (It is possible for you to lessen a specific response through constant exposure, but it requires training.)

This is because your sympathetic nervous system hijacks your body to protect you from harm. It does this because it’s fast. It’s much faster than if you were to consciously think about the danger, and then make the decision to move. Fast is safe.

The Stoics called these involuntary reactions propatheiai. They were viewed as an indifferent and natural response to potential danger. Nothing for you to be embarrassed about, and nothing to be fought.

Response 2: Conscious Response

Your second response is more complex. It’s conscious, and it’s based on your values, beliefs, and experiences. The second response is how you decide to react after your initial hijacking. That decision will be based on your character.

The second response is where philosophy will help you live a better life. Practical philosophy can help us to see the world in different ways, in doing so we will make different choices. This is where I’ll focus this discussion.

The Stoic at Sea:

Some time ago, a Stoic philosopher boarded the deck of a ship with a number of his students, bound for Brundisium in southern Italy.

After their first day at sea, as the sun set, rough waves began to beat against the boat’s wooden hull, and it rocked violently in the turning weather.

In the dark of night, a violent storm met them on the open water. It tossed the ship in the wind as it began to slowly fill with water.

To the men and women on board, it was clear that the boat was at risk of sinking. Many of them began to cry and moan, believing that they wouldn’t make it through the storm to see the morning.

During this time the Stoic philosopher had turned pale, gripped by fear, just like the others. However he did not wail or moan. He remained silent, holding his students safe and in control.

When the storm had passed, one of the travellers approached the Stoic and asked the reason for his fear. After all, if he was such a good philosopher, surely he would have the ability to master his fear of the storm.

The Stoic handed the man a copy of Epictetus’ work (the fifth book of the Discourses) and instructed him to read it.

In the book was the following statement:

“The mental visions, which the philosophers call impressions or ‘phantasies,’ by which the mind of man on the very first appearance of an object is impelled to the perception of the object, are neither voluntary nor controlled by the will, but through a certain power of their own they force their recognition upon men; but the expressions of assent, which they call συγκαταθέσεις, by which these visions are recognised, are voluntary and subject to man’s will.

Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm, not from a preconceived idea of any danger, but from certain swift and unexpected attacks which forestall the power of the mind and of reason.

Presently, however, the wise man does not approve ‘such phantasies’, that is to say, such terrifying mental visions (to quote the Greek, ‘he does not consent to them nor confirm them’), but he rejects and scorns them, nor does he see in them anything that ought to excite fear.

And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them; for προσεπιδοξάζει is the word which the Stoics use in their discourses on the subject.

But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms.”

Let’s break that down.

Stoicism: How can we use it?

Epictetus’ work explains a few things that we can use to our advantage:

Response 1:

We will experience sudden and involuntary reactions to external events. Epictetus says, “even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed.”

We shouldn’t feel guilty about this. These involuntary actions are what the Stoics called “propatheiai”.  It is not a realistic expectation to avoid these kinds of responses, they exist to keep us from harm. They are in our nature.

Response 2:

After our initial, involuntary response, we have the ability to see the situation more logically.

In this space we are given a choice. The choice to decide how we respond.

Epictetus explains that the difference between the wise man and the fool is found in this space between stimulus and response. Where the fool is overcome by the initial impact of the situation, the wise man is able to look at it objectively and understand that it is not wise to be terrified by “vain alarms”.

Epictetus’ work, and the story of the stoic at sea show us that sudden fright and fear is natural and expected. However, the differences between people lie in how we respond after that moment of fright has passed.

Are we the fool who allows fear to fill us, like the water of the ship? Or the wise man who looks at things objectively and sees them for what they are?

The wise person then, has the following mental framework:

  1. They are gripped by the initial threat. This is seen as natural in the face of something life threatening or dangerous. It is accepted as part of being human. It brings no shame or embarrassment.

  2. They look at the situation for what it is, rather than what their fear is telling them it is. What can be done about the situation? How dangerous is it really? What is within our control that we can leverage to improve the conditions?

We can exercise this process in all kinds of different situations:

  1. When we perceive danger

  2. When experience sudden anger

  3. When we are shocked

  4. If something makes us jump

  5. Etc

Basically, anything we experience that causes us a sudden, involuntary reaction is an opportunity to use this method of looking at the thing objectively.

Next time you feel yourself being hijacked by your primal instinct, accept that initial response for what it is and then make a conscious effort to see the situation objectively.

Amor Fati

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *