In the weeks leading up to the US presidential election, disaster preppers across the country were making plans. One woman loaded her gun and stashed it next to a bottle of whiskey. Another scheduled all her serious dental work for before election day, in case society collapsed and the dentist offices were closed.
If familiar with the prepper stereotype, none of that behaviour will surprise you. What might is that these particular preppers self-identify as liberals. I joined a bunch of liberal prepper groups on Facebook after the 2016 election with the intention of reporting about how they were “freaking out”. Instead, I grew to respect their life skills and stayed, lurking, learning. A week before election day this year, a group member posted a detailed description of how he would sneak into Canada by fording a river if Trump was re-elected. In the heightened worry of this year, it didn’t stand out as over-the-top.
Listen to the podcast accompanying this article here
I assume that man has not forded any rivers yet. I’m writing this two days after election day, where as of now we still don’t know who won the presidency. By the time you read this, it may be clear, but the lingering aftertaste of uncertainty will hang in the air. What happens next?
There is so much we do not know, and can’t. The US election is just one of many things in 2020 that has highlighted the uncertainty that is a hallmark of life. We seek out political polls to try to tame that uncertainty, but in 2020 they failed us just as they did in 2016. We turn to the media, and experts on pandemics and elections, for answers about the future, and the honest ones say: a lot is unknowable.
This ancient form of philosophy has some very applicable tricks up its sleeve that can help us face whatever the future throws at us
Mental health professionals report that anxiety has spiked during the pandemic. Researchers running the “Hedonometer”, which analyses the happiness quotient of the English-speaking world (they are working on adding other languages) based on word trends on Twitter, said 2020 has been the saddest, most anxious year since they began collecting global data in 2008. When I told my doctor I was anxious and having trouble sleeping, she said, “You and everyone else.”
To deal with uncertainty I too have engaged in some mental disaster prep: imagining the worst-case scenario. I told myself it was likely my preferred candidate would lose the election, just as I’ve told myself all fall that Covid-19 was likely to besiege my country for the next year.
Spelling out my fears is my way of warding off disappointment and not letting uncertainty take me by surprise.
This, it turns out, is a very ancient idea. It’s a hallmark of Stoicism, born in ancient Greece in the third century BC. I have always been drawn to philosophy and attempted to major in it in college, until I got intimidated at the thought of having to take logic classes, and switched to English so I could study poetry instead.
As I have been talking to people this year about how to have a good life, and what the good life even means amid so much uncertainty and sadness, I’ve increasingly realised my ideas about Stoic ethics systems were wrong, and that this ancient form of philosophy has some very applicable tricks up its sleeve that can help us face whatever the future throws at us.
Eudaimonia: The good life as a state of being
Before we get to Stoicism and what it has to do with now, it’s useful to understand the role philosophy played in ancient Greece 2,000 years ago. Philosophers were the elites, and they preached their specific ideas in the streets and in schools. One of their key teachings was how to obtain and achieve eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia is often translated today as “happiness” though many scholars say this is inaccurate. In a general sense, eudaimonia meant “the good life” or a life worth living. This is the definition I am most interested in. Rather than describing an emotion, eudaimonia is a state of being. How to achieve it was one of the fundamental ways ancient philosophical schools defined themselves. Understanding them today can prove useful as we try to achieve “the good life” amid so much uncertainty.
Here’s a brief rundown of the main approaches to eudaimonia with a critique of each philosopher’s approach.
Socrates thought you achieved eudaimonia by being virtuous, and he seemed to think virtue is knowledge. “This is the root of many weird things Socrates says, such as that the only reason people do wrong is because they’re ignorant,” explains Justin Vlasits, doctor of philosophy at Universität Tübingen in Germany. (Read the critique here.)
Plato emphasised that eudaimonia was about achieving a kind of inner harmony, both for an individual and a community. “In The Republic, Plato talks in a non metaphorical way about the happiness of a city,” Vlasits says. (Read the critique here.)
For Aristotle, eudaimonia was about “doing and living well”. His version is often translated as “flourishing”, which was achieved through a mix of actions and luck. You had to act virtuously, get an education, be involved in politics and also have the luck of a good family, wealth, and health. In short, his version of eudaimonia meant you needed to be a good, educated, and successful person in society, and this needed to be objectively true of your life as a whole. (Read the critique here.)
For Epicurus, eudaimonia was achieved through simple pleasures and minimising pain. “Not just physical pain, but more importantly, mental, emotional pain,” says philosophy historian Massimo Pigliucci. Unlike the other ancient philosophers who led major schools, Epicurus taught the equality of the sexes and permitted women to study in his schools. (Read the critique here.)
For Pyrrho, who founded a leading form of scepticism, the word was not eudaimonia, but rather “ataraxia”, or calmness, the absence of turmoil. One way this was achieved was by not getting too attached to any beliefs. Sceptics rejected rigidity of thought. They encourage you to “assemble your own philosophy and be kind of eclectic – ‘ek legein’ means to choose,” Vlasits says. “Choose the good bits of the different people and criticise them when they’re wrong and think for yourself.” (Read the critique here.)
Finally, we come to Zeno, the father of Stoicism. To him and subsequent Stoics like the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius or the slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, eudaimonia was achieved through accepting what is within your power to control, and what is not. You have to be good and virtuous, but also understand your own limitations. The Stoics believed the suffering of life comes from worrying about things that you actually can’t change, but believing you can. What you can control are your judgements and values. That’s it. (Read the critique here.)
What the ancient Greeks would say about the US elections
To get a better sense of the distinctions between the various teachings, let’s apply them to a real world example.
Right now in the United States Donald Trump is attempting to delegitimise a democratic election by accusing his opposition party of trying to steal the presidency from him – even as ballots are still being counted. The outcome of those counts and Trump’s response to the results are outside of all our control, further fuelling the uncertainty and dread that has been with us for months.
An Epicurean would say tune the news out in order to minimise the pain. A Socratic thinker would say arm yourself with knowledge. A sceptic would say do whatever makes that sense of dread go away. An Aristotelian might suggest I use my education and other forms of privilege to ensure I stand the best chance of thriving, no matter what happens.
A Stoic would say I should prepare to confront whatever happens, and figure out what actions I can take to be virtuous and helpful if Trump subverts democracy.
Philosophy: not just an intellectual exercise but a way to organise your life
It can be difficult to imagine turning to philosophy at moments such as these. After all, if you are anything like me, my understanding of all philosophy, from childhood through to college, was that it was meant to be heady, theoretical, beautiful, but not really applicable. But this, like our poor translation of eudaimonia, is a modern interpretation.
In his seminal work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, first published in 1981, French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot described philosophy as “spiritual exercises” that were taught in the form of “therapeutics”. These daily spiritual exercises, such as reading, exercise, or meditation, as Hadot wrote, could lead to “a profound transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being”.
When looking at what then we can learn about living the good life from ancient Greeks it is this: eudaimonia is something you work at. This idea was radical when Hadot first published and is still not yet commonly understood.
Even Pigliucci, who has a PhD in philosophy, didn’t realise it could be practised in the form of daily exercises until after he had his own personal crisis. (I talk to him about this at greater length in the accompanying podcast to this story.) Feeling distant from the Catholicism of his childhood, Pigliucci felt he needed a new framework for how to make sense of everything. “I had just finished my PhD in philosophy,” he says. “So I figure, well, if the answer is coming from somewhere, it’s going to come from philosophy. I mean, what the hell did I study philosophy for?” And so, he, like I am doing now, went on a quest.
He tried Aristotle, but found it elitist and lacking practical advice. He tried Epicureanism, and found he couldn’t accept its dismissal of political engagement. Next Pigliucci tried Buddhist philosophy, but found that it was too hard to accept some of its metaphysics, like a belief in reincarnation. Finally, he found Stoicism, and it made sense to him.
“A philosophy for life has essentially three components,” Pigliucci explains. “It has a metaphysics: that’s an account of how the world works. It has an ethics: that’s an account of how you should live in the world. And then it has a set of practices.” The Stoic practices involve reading, keeping a diary, preparing for worst-case scenarios, and learning memorable, helpful phrases that encapsulate Stoic values, which you can repeat to yourself when you need them most, among other things.
So Pigliucci began doing the exercises – the meditations, and the daily reflections; first for one day, then two days, then a month. Now, six years later, he is on the board of the Modern Stoicism society. He says that he was particularly enthralled by how Stoicism clearly explained what was within our control and what wasn’t. “If you focus your attention on the things that are under your control, and you learn to take the rest with equanimity – that is, to accept it as it comes – then you will never complain. You will have a good life. You will be free from hindrance,” he says, paraphrasing Epictetus.
Why the tech industry loves Stoicism
It is this that also appeals to me with Stoicism. As a journalist, for example, I can report on the ways the president is undermining democracy in my nation. I am not delusional enough to think a single article will fix systemic problems, but this is what is within my power to do. Recognising that and doing it means that while my life might not be free from suffering, it can still be good.
The fact that Stoicism is so practical and adaptable – and often sounds very similar to the advice given by career coaches and productivity experts – probably goes some way to explain its popularity with the tech industry.
Stoicism has a lesson we can all learn from ... focus on the things within your power to control, and stop worrying about the things we can’t
Jaime Teevan, for example, a chief scientist at Microsoft who focuses on work productivity, told me earlier this year that she advises people to take a moment to reflect on their work goals at the end of every day, in order to clear their heads and set them up better for the next day. “And actually, they don’t have to be just work goals. They can include personal goals. Ending the day with a few minutes of asking ‘what matters to me?’ helps you disengage in a way that actually makes you more productive in the morning,” she said. That’s a Stoic idea. Seneca, a late Stoic, explicitly advised basically the same thing.
But in this moment of extreme uncertainty – when my brother Ben reported that on election night our mother was watching the news and “preparing to drink cyanide” because she was so worried Trump might win again – Stoicism has a lesson we can all learn from. It is helpful to focus on the things within your power to control, and to stop worrying about the things we can’t.
My mother had voted. She had encouraged others to vote. She had driven people to drop off their ballots. There was nothing more she could do. The next day, after a kind person on Twitter reached out and said they were thinking of her, she remembered that there are wonderful people in the world, and that she should focus on them, and her dogs, and her grandchildren, and the things that within this moment she could control.
Finding calm in an uncertain age
That’s very Stoic. As is buying a thousand rolls of toilet paper and growing a vegetable garden, as people in my liberal preppers group are doing. They might not call themselves Stoics, but they embody a certain application of the philosophy, and though their approach is extreme, I can report that in the days since the polls closed in the US, the preppers, for their part, are pretty calm.
They anticipated worse. While one of my best friends has bought a gun, in case roving Republican marauders invade his apartment in the liberal city of San Francisco – an event that will almost certainly not happen – the preppers are posting about bread recipes on their Facebook page. They can handle a little uncertainty.
I don’t yet grow veggies in my garden or have a bug-out bag, but I read their posts as though I’m taking notes on the future. And it brings me calm. I hope you can find some, too.