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Stoicism - a response to angry citizens, paranoia and fear of the future

2016 was a year of political upheaval. After several decades, which were politically relatively calm, 2016 was rather turbulent. One of the most common (and plausible) explanations for the rise of demagogues and populists in the western world has to do with two emotions: fear and anger. Fear of social change, fear of an uncertain future or fear of immigrants and strangers, anger against “those up there”, the governments or the “elite”. Many ask: what can we do about so much fear, so much anger, so much hatred? How can we “take citizens' concerns seriously?” Philosophy could provide an answer, more precisely; the philosophy of the stoics.

Who were the stoics?

The Stoics were a group of philosophers whose ideas were of great importance and influence throughout ancient Greece and Rome for 400 years. They were named after the "Stoa", a pillared hall on the agora (the market square) of Athens. It was in this hall that the first stoic, Zeno, had spread his teachings. He founded the so-called oldest school of the Stoa. In addition to this there is also the school of the middle stoa and that of the younger stoa. The most famous Stoics are almost all from the younger Stoa, which gained enormous influence in the Roman Empire since Emperor Augustus. Among them are Seneca, who is said to have brought up the young emperor Nero, but failed terribly, and Marcus Aurelius, who is also known as the “philosopher emperor”. Any coincidences between the names Max Aurel and Mark Aurel are of course purely coincidental. 😉

The stoic calm

The phrase "stoic calm" has even made it into common parlance. And it pretty directly describes the two core messages of the Stoics, serenity and leaving behind hope. We cannot control or influence some things that happen around us. But we can influence our response to these events. We should also remove hope from our lives. Hope is “the opium of emotions”, it takes you further up, only to fall even lower in the worst case.

So how can the Stoics help us deal with anger? According to the Stoics, anger arises when something angry happens and we don't expect that event, that circumstance. It is rare for us to get unrestrainedly angry when it starts raining. Because we've learned to prepare for rain, look at the weather report and expect it to rain. Only people who are not prepared for rain and who are surprised by it get angry. To prevent outbursts of anger, one should avoid allowing hope and reality to drift far apart. We should be prepared for the “worst case scenario” and come to terms with it as soon as it has arrived.

And what about fear? Fear accompanies us almost every day, be it that we are afraid on a personal level (Will I be fired? Do the others laugh at me? Are the others more successful than me?) Or on a social level, so that fear leads many voters to questionable voting decisions.

Most people's answer to fear is usually one of the following: “Don't be so afraid! It's definitely not going to be as bad as you think! You the positive thing about the whole thing! ”The Stoics turned away from these naively optimistic ideas in horror, because they utterly distrusted hope. In order to be truly serene and fearless, the Stoics have an unorthodox, sinister proposal. Yes, all of your worst fears will come true, and the sooner you accept it, the better. Will I be fired and will my friends laugh at me for it? Yes but! Do i have to go to jail? Yes but! Can I really not afford this expensive car that my neighbor recently bought? Yes but! The most important word in this message is the "but", I call it the "stoic but". Yes, but you will survive it, you will survive it somehow, because "in the end you are stronger than you can imagine", said Aurelius.

Confront yourself with reality!

Ultimately, this attitude of mind that one will somehow overcome even worst-case scenarios gives hope. And not in a dreamy, unrealistic way that leads to anger when hope and reality collide, but in an assuring way that one will somehow overcome severe crises. But this is not an invitation to react indifferently and emotionlessly to events in your environment, an often heard misinterpretation of "stoic calm". As I said before, you can control how you react to what is happening, calm and relaxed or fearful and angry. And then you can also tackle issues that caught your attention.

You are afraid that “Muslims will overrun your country and Islamize it?” Cool. But you will survive that too, as paranoid as this fear may be. Are you afraid that Trump will start a war with one of his tweets? You will survive that too. Are you angry because the government seems to be doing too little for you? Adjust your expectations for the government! It's best not to expect them to do anything for you, be prepared for the worst! Once you have adjusted your expectations, you will have a much clearer head and can calmly point out the problems that bother you about the government and change it. Anger and fear are bad companions for the future.

We still have so much to learn from the Stoics.

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Posted in PhilosophyTagged fear, demagogy, hope, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, stoa, stoic, anger