Stoic Week 2014: Saturday

A tiny little bit of the Loeb Classical Library edition of the first two volumes of the Discourses of Epictetus.

A tiny little bit of the Loeb Classical Library edition of the first two volumes of the Discourses of Epictetus.

There is something oddly reassuring about knowing the disaster is on its way and on schedule. A disaster about which one knows, and for which one can prepare, isn’t quite as disastrous. That seems to be one of the points of today’s assigned theme: Preparation for Adversity.

The morning reflection text (again, taken from Marcus Aurelius) adds a little flavor to that observation:

Be like the headland on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me!’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ (Meditations 4.49)

To this, I would add a line from the end of the same passage (this time taken from the Haines translation): “Forget not in [the] future, when anything would lead thee to feel hurt, to take thy stand upon this axiom: This is no misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune.” The attitude advised here is one that shifts attention from the adversity one faces to the way in which one faces it, which is entirely consistent with the Stoic habit of attending only to what is genuinely in our power. I cannot control a tsunami, a drunk driver, cancer, or anything else of the kind. I can, however, decide how best to respond to these things.

The exercise, given this quotation, is to take on a sort of meditative process of imaginatively rehearsing one’s responses future catastrophes in order to  better face them if they should ever occur. This is preparation both for life and for death (death being, after all, the inevitable end toward which we all travel). Of particular interest to me in this discussion, however, isn’t the general notion of achieving some freedom from anxiety via this rehearsal method. Nope, I want to talk about zombies.

Yes, I said and I meant zombies (of both the shambling and the running varieties). I want to talk about kaiju invasions. I want to talk about the alien conquest of Earth, or the day the Faeries decide they’ve had enough of us, or the Rapture and the Tribulation that follows. How on earth can a person really, truly, prepare oneself to be properly Stoic in the face of such a thing?

Ha! Put Jurassic Park in your pipe and smoke it, Marcus!

As it turns out, it actually is possible to be the chillest Stoic in each and every apocalypse — but what makes that possible is not necessarily an imaginative rehearsal for the apocalyptic. What makes it possible is getting one’s head on straight about the everyday disasters, the common catastrophes, the things one is most reasonably likely to have to confront. The same skills apply. It doesn’t matter whether kaiju or global warming-induced flooding are destroying your coastal city — preparation is preparation. This isn’t to say that there’s no point in imagining the giant monsters, only that they are best imagined in the context of what we can, realistically, expect ourselves to be prepared to do.

My favorite illustration of this comes in one of Jim MacDonald’s classic preparedness posts from Making Light: “Cloverfield (with spoilers).” Regardless of the monster(s) involved, the methods he describes for handling both personal safety and institutional logistics are rational and well-established practices (which, naturally, the people in the actual Cloverfield film fail miserably to follow). I cannot prepare for a zombie apocalypse. I can, however, see myself prepared for any number of other disasters that are not, on the whole, all that much different from a zombie apocalypse, for all their mundanity.

Just so, on the psychological front rather than the natural disaster front: If I am doing the whole Stoic thing right, I should probably avoid borrowing trouble that isn’t there, and confine my meditations to the situations I can reasonably expect to have to deal with. Then, it becomes possible for me to identify what is and what is not within my power, and to choose accordingly. Once I have habituated myself to dealing with things like this, the zombies can fall as they may.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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One Response to Stoic Week 2014: Saturday

  1. Pingback: Stoic Week 2014: A Warning, A PSA, A Personal Note… | Ginger IS The Professor!

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