IV. Be Invulnerable

The promise of invulnerability, the war on suffering, and Stoic rap

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Each week we share one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

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🏛️ Theory

Stoicism offers the promise of invulnerability.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself:

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.

Meditations, 8.47

How can this be true? Can we wish away suffering?

Ancient philosophy and modern wisdom agree: how we interpret the world determines how we experience it.

The Roman philosopher and statesman, Cicero, wrote:

The mere fact that men endure the same pain more easily when they voluntarily undergo it for the sake of their country than when they suffer it for some lesser cause, shows that the intensity of the pain depends on the state of mind of the sufferer, not on its own intrinsic nature.

De Finibus, Book III

What we believe influences what we feel – and what we believe is up to us.

Does that mean we can wish away suffering just like that? It’s not easy.

We cannot decide to believe that the sun is set if it is obviously sitting in the sky. We cannot vanquish grief over losing a loved one by snapping our fingers.

Yet we change our considered judgments over time. Starting now.

Of course, you may always find yourself with an involuntary and immediate reaction. You cannot control that at the moment. But who you are and how you handle the situations that life throws at you – that is up to you.

How so?

You control your awareness, how you frame events, and values.

Even when you are in the grip of passion you can change what you pay attention to. Instead of stressing and ruminating, you can exercise, watch a movie, or reach out to friends. Focus fuels negative thought patterns. They starve when they’re not rewarded with attention.

You can always reframe experiences. You shouldn’t assume that what you immediately believe is true. Instead, you can see an insult as a challenge. You can get energy from the fact that someone is underestimating you. How you respond to adversity is up to you.

Finally, you can transform what you value. To change your values you need to repeatedly express them in thought and action. That is how you create yourself. As Marcus Aurelius writes:

It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.

Meditations, 4.8

No one can harm Marcus Aurelius because he only cares about his character. That is up to him, not others.

This is the Stoic’s armor. What matters is our character and only we have control over that. Hence, we are only harmed when we do damage to ourselves. Nothing else can touch us. Everything else is indifferent.

By shifting our attention, reframing our experiences, and changing what we value we can handle anything life throws at us.

Our job is to think well, if we do that then we cannot be harmed.

🎯 Action

When you encounter suffering, try one of the following strategies:

  • Move your attention to what matters

  • Reframe your experience

  • Remind yourself what you value

Or perhaps all three: move your attention to what matters in the situation – your character – and reframe the experience in that light.

🔗 Links

📔 The quotes from Marcus Aurelius above come from Gregory Hay’s translation of Meditations. The rest of 8.47 is awesome:

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.

If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight?

And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it?

–But there are insuperable obstacles.

Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you.

Then depart, with a good conscience, as if you’d done it embracing the obstacles too.

Meditations, 8.47

The idea of embracing obstacles as if you’ve created them yourself is the idea of to willing acceptance. We wrote about that in the second letter. Amazing to see techniques that are highlighted in 21st-century therapies present in the journal of a Roman emperor from the 2nd century.

📰 Read this compelling piece by the venture capitalist Katherine Boyle The War on Suffering:

Though we may not realize it, nearly all of our modern cultural debates and ailments stem from the contemporary belief that suffering is not a natural or essential part of the human condition. The war on suffering has not only robbed us of resilience; it has sold us a mirage that is making us miserable.

Stoicism acknowledges the reality of pain while rejecting its ability to harm us. A life of permanent comfort is not a good one. First, it’s impossible. Ill fortune comes for everyone in the end. Second, it avoids the difficult project of shaping ourselves into someone who can handle whatever life throws at us.

Katherine ends her piece with the following challenge:

We have long been fully invested in eradicating the suffering we deem unconscionable, but more important are the simple questions that define a serious life: For whom will you sacrifice? What will you defend? For what will you choose to suffer?

📺️ Now for something fun – a surprisingly accurate and compelling, rap about the benefits of Stoicism:

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