VII. Stoicism is Not About Reducing Negative Emotions

How to describe Stoicism in 5 words, Silicon Valley Stoicism, and what smart readers do

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

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

What ultimately matters to the Stoic is acting and thinking well. The goal isn’t to minimize negative feelings, but see the world as it is and cultivate virtue.

As Ward Farnsworth writes in The Practicing Stoic:

View the Stoics not as against feeling or emotion but as in favor of seeing the world accurately, living by reason, and staying detached from externals.

Ward Farnsworth, The Practicing Stoic

Stoicism has a therapeutic dimension – it has helped millions of people overcome psychological pain – but it’s much more. Indeed, Stoicism's therapeutic value is grounded in the fact that it is a life philosophy.

Focusing on reducing negative emotions can make them worse.

In Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Steven Hayes uses the example of a Chinese finger trap:

If you’ve ever played with a Chinese finger trap, you know that the game is a woven straw tube about the width of your finger. When you put one finger in each end and pull, the straw stretches out and gets narrower.

The harder you pull, the narrower the tube gets and it becomes impossible to get your fingers out. If you simply push your two fingers together, however, your fingers will be free.

Now, think about how life is like a Chinese finger trap. The more you fight against it, the more limits you have. If you stop fighting, you keep your freedom to make your own choices.

Steven Hayes, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life

Fighting negative thought patterns can fuel rumination. Rumination spurs additional negative thoughts. You’re stuck – the cycle continues.

Instead of fighting against feeling, gently focus on virtue. Embrace reality, even the bits that hurt, and cultivate your character. Negative emotions will evaporate as a side-effect, on their own time.

In order for this technique to work, you must have a sense of the purpose of your life. We each need a story that explains what we’re embracing reality for.

The Stoics offer such a picture: the good life is one where you cultivate virtue.

What does virtue achieve for us? Serenity.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.4

This requires pursuing knowledge, acting with courage, becoming disciplined, and offering justice.

What this looks like in each of our lives is a question we’re challenged to answer.

🎯 Action

When you experience a negative emotion simply remind yourself who you want to be.

🔗 Links

🏛️ If you haven’t had the chance to read them yet, check out our earlier letters on Stoicism and meaning from this week: The Stoic Solution to Stress and One Thing Every Meaningful Life Has.

📓 Andrew Perlot describes Stoicism in 5 words: Virtue is the only good.

📗 I wrote a longer essay on Silicon Valley Stoicism – the good bad and ugly. TLDR:

1. Stoicism is popular in tech, but we shouldn’t exaggerate.

2. Stoicism is big because it helps people build companies.

3. Silicon Valley Stoicism can be shallow, but it’s good on net.

💻️ Alex & Books on what “smart” readers actually do:

With Alex, I’d emphasize rereading and careful book selection. Unlike Alex, I’d note that memorization is underrated. The ancients emphasized memorizing maxims for a reason.

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