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Dethroning the Kingdom of Rationality
What Stoicism Gets Wrong
I’m probably a year or so behind on this short essay since stoicism passed its peak in hipness right around when Joe Rogan became public enemy number one, but it’s worth exploring since so many on the internet blathered on about how great it is. Full disclaimer: I was one of them and I do think it is a commendable worldview, especially when compared to other belief systems. I just find a few of its tenets disagreeable to living the good life. This essay won’t deep dive into what it means to be a stoic since there are much more knowledgeable sources available. Rather, we will channel our inner Debby Downer and focus on a few points of contention.
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The Kingdom of Rationality and its Archvillain - Emotion
One of the defining tenets of stoicism is what we’ll call The Kingdom of Rationality. It places rationality on a pedestal and separates emotions between those that are good and bad. At a certain stage of life and enlightenment, this may hold true, but it is a dangerous idea for the lost. This is unfortunate since modern stoicism became widely popular with an audience of lost young men during a time of personal upheaval: COVID. I contend that during such times is when we should embrace emotion rather than reject it, especially the “negative” ones.
Many hear about stoicism1 and chase The Kingdom of Rationality by trying to detach from their emotions. This is a problem because emotions are the glue that hold us together. Otherwise, we would be mere automations operating within the confines of logic and rationality. To strive for rationality at all times is misguided when such a large part of our nature is irrational. Much like the check engine light on your car, emotions indicate the status of the machinery inside. They point us towards what is most important to us
Rather than chase rationality as a goal, stoicism is a by-product of other activities and behaviors. Stoicism is another example of a paradox that manifests itself time and time again: the best way to reach a state of being isn’t by actively chasing it, but through a roundabout activity that creates it as a byproduct. You don’t become cool by trying to be cool. By the same token you don’t become rational by trying to be rational.
The roundabout path to stoicism requires you to leverage your emotions to understand what is important to you. From those values, you can give yourself a sense of purpose by orienting goals around those values. And the relentless pursuit of those goals creates that stoicism towards the noise. It gives you a sense of rationality because you have faith that you are on the path towards where
you want to be you’re meant to be, in a place that is congruent with your deepest values.
If you try to be stoic before you’ve defined what’s important to you, you’ll suppress useful emotions and stall yourself out in the beginning of your journey.
There are a flurry of roadblocks you can hit on this road to stoicism. If you don’t listen to your emotions, you’ll never know what is important to you. If you don’t know what’s important to you, you’ll never find meaningful goals and hence you’ll never stick with any goals you set. And if you don’t have meaningful goals to chase, how can you separate the signal from the noise? One roadblock I’ve discussed in a few different places is the realization that one of your values is not worth pursuing, which can be overcome by what I call The Identity Change Cycle. All of these steps must be overcome before we can attempt to enter The Kingdom of Rationality.
The Dichotomy of Control
One of the most popular tenets of stoicism is called the dichotomy of control. This asserts that the world can be split into two buckets: what is within our control and what is outside our control. Geopolitical issues, how people treat you, and other “external” situations fall into one category while your reactions, behavior, and thoughts of a situation fall within your control. This heuristic has personally helped me separate the wheat from the chaff on what is worth pining over until it became a self-limiting belief.2
The dichotomy of control becomes a self-limiting belief when it is used as a barometer between the important and unimportant. It is great for evaluating decisions if control is important to you, as it is with people who have an internal locus of control - i.e. people who wish to be accountable for their own destiny. So how does it become a self-limiting belief when used to filter between the important and unimportant?
Let’s say you believe yourself to be unworthy of others’ respect. If you follow the stoics’ teachings, you may find yourself content with people continually walking all over you, since the way others treat you is outside of your control and what matters is your reaction, right? I’d contend that the way others treat you is dependent upon your beliefs. Yes, you read that correctly, but I’ll restate it:
The way others treat you is dependent upon your beliefs.
In fact, there are plenty of external events where your locus of control is dubious. This became apparent to me in the realm of politics in the middle of 2020. I was casually browsing Twitter when footage of the death of George Floyd was released to the public. Undoubtedly, the content of the video was horrific as we all remember. But the paradigm shift was found in the comments, which revealed polarities in opinions despite watching the exact same video. One side saw someone high on drugs failing to comply with police orders while the other side saw a helpless man brutalized by a corrupt system. Everyone witnessed the same “external reality” yet walked away with a completely different experience because of differences in their “internal realities.”
When our beliefs shape how we interpret a supposed objective reality or evidence, how can we separate events by locus of control? Sure, an event can be outside of you, but your experience of the event is not. All events that happen to you are intimately tied to your belief system because your brain filters sensory information to avoid disruption of your beliefs. Not only does your belief system influence where your attention lies, it also manipulates those sensory inputs.
Robert Anton Wilson has a useful heuristic to explain how this works: what the thinker thinks, the prover proves. Meaning, there are two people within you: the thinker and prover. The thinker is capable of dreaming up infinite possibilities, while the prover shows you evidence of whichever possibilities you choose to believe. The prover frequently hides things that contradict your beliefs, while conjuring up realities that support your beliefs.
Going back to the example where you may believe yourself to be unworthy of others’ respect, your thinker feeds the prover with a detrimental belief and the prover seeks out and brings evidence of your lack of worthiness to the thinker. This means an innocuous comment is contorted into a personal slight or a compliment is disregarded as a mere formality. Despite the event itself being outside your control, the experience of that event is not. What the thinker thinks, the prover proves.
A practitioner of stoicism and its dichotomy of control would think nothing is wrong with this situation and merely accept the mistreatment (perceived or real) as behavior outside of their control - as something simply to endure or even embrace. If we believe in the thinker/prover model or its more scientific colleague - cognitive bias - then we must concede that there exists an intimate connection between whatever you choose to believe and anything you experience. The universe you live in is different from the universe someone else lives in. Besides the shared laws of physics, these universes are governed by different limitations, rules, and possibilities.
When the prover, an entity within you, has such an influence over what you can experience, how do you separate the world by what you can and cannot control? The Baby Boomers may be onto something when they say that most of your problems are just in your head. There is a good chance they exist only within your universe. What the Boomers get wrong is that just because your problems only exist in your head, it doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They just aren’t real for the casual observer since they don’t live within your universe.
We’ll keep this essay short and sweet by wrapping up to say that there are two fundamental points where stoicism misses the mark:
Rationality is a by-product of a lifestyle rather than a virtue to pursue.
Control is too nebulous a concept to effectively divide the world between the important and unimportant
The author’s proposition is to take the good but leave the bad. As the stoics evangelize, living a life in accordance with virtues or values has proven to be a meaningful path, but pedestalizing rationality as one of these virtues stalls many out. In fact, we are better off with the irrational conviction that our destiny is in our own hands.3 Holding this belief has made life more fun for me at least. When you assume your thoughts shape the [your] world, you can experiment with new universes. Convince yourself you are a groveling worm and you’ll see people treat you like one. Convince yourself that you are a stunning individual who radiates confidence and you’ll find people magnetized by your energy.
Rather than focus on fruitlessly chasing rationality or arbitrarily separating the world by a nebulous concept like control, I propose we are better off focusing on what our emotions tell us is most important to us and assuming our beliefs and actions have the power to change any situation.
Note I am using stoicism and rationality synonymously in this essay
Here is where I enter my mystical woo-woo Deepak Chopra-esque writer arc
For the skeptics, Google "internal locus of control." The psychologists believe this is a major factor for success/happiness. Of course that assumes you believe their profession has any credibility