There seems to be a growing interest in ancient philosophy for many today. I can’t help but wonder how much of this has to do with the increasing levels of anxiety we face, anxiety seemingly impervious to modern remedies. One of the rising stars in this revival is Stoicism.
Let me say at the beginning what I plan to demonstrate throughout this article: though Stoicism is actually a powerful mindset in fighting anxiety, it will not bail us out of the full weight of anxiety—in particular the anxiety of guilt—any better today than it did two millennia ago.
That said, what is Stoicism and why does it stand out among all the philosophical varieties? In a word, it is the art of resignation; the ability to come to terms with the limitations of one’s cognitive and physical abilities, the recognition of which sets one free from placing needless phantasmal expectations and responsibilities on oneself.
Stoicism offers a stark contrast to “Enlightenment” and “American dream” thinking where hard work, dedication, and self-love all but guarantee one a shot at utopian living: just believe in yourself, be obsessed with goals, logic can solve all ills, accept only happiness, you can do it because you’re special—these represent but a taste of our deeply ingrained unrealistic optimism of self and success. The Stoic courage is empowered by transcending all such fantasies and appealing to one’s reasonable nature.
Reason, according to ancient Stoic thought, was not ordinary mathematical reasoning, but rather Logos—the meaningful structure of reality, including that of the human mind. To harness and live within one’s reasonable nature was to live in harmony with wisdom and pay no attention to unreasonable personal desires and fears.
According to Paul Tillich, “Stoic courage presupposes the surrender of the personal center to the Logos of being; it is participation in the divine power of reason, transcending the realm of passions and anxieties.”
Stoics understood that it was impossible to argue anxiety away; anxiety was never a servant to the clever. In many ways they anticipated modern psychoanalytic theory in their belief that anxiety can only be transcended by tethering one’s soul to something meaningful, something real, something outside one’s private world of fantasy. By resigning oneself to the Logos the Stoic found the courage to be in a world wrapped in fate and death. In the words of Seneca, “Undisturbed by fears and unspoiled by pleasures, we shall be afraid neither of death nor of the gods.”
This resignation, this displacement of anxiety via transcendence, effectuated a powerful remedy for existential anxiety.
Epictetus well summarized this Stoic remedy:
If a man should transfer caution to those things in which the will may be exercised and the acts of the will, he will immediately, by willing to be cautious, have also the power of avoiding what he chooses: but if he transfer it to the things which are not in his power and will, and attempt to avoid the things which are in the power of others, he will of necessity fear, he will be unstable, he will be disturbed. For death or pain is not formidable, but the fear of pain or death.
Indeed, this has become the resolve of many systems of thought from Buddhism to Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavioral (REBT) therapy: don’t get caught up in stuff beyond the limit of your actual responsibility, and always be conscious that the fear of pain and death is worse than actual pain and death. Viola! Problem solved.
But, there’s an Achilles heel.
If anxieties were limited to death anxiety then Stoicism may have been the final answer. But our anxieties are not limited to death and fate. There are at least three primal foundations of anxiety: death, meaninglessness, and guilt. Stoicism satisfactorily answers the first two, but what about the third?
It is no coincidence that the rise of Christianity conquered Stoicism after the 1st century just as the current waning of Christianity in modern times has fostered its revival. The decreasing influence of Christianity on the masses seems to coincide nicely with a counter rise in existential anxiety among the masses—bad news for the masses; good news for mental health providers.
It was Christianity that offered a remedy not only for anxieties related to death and meaninglessness, but it offered the ultimate remedy for guilt: Christianity is the advent of God come in the flesh, a God that shares in the sufferings of man, and thus able to redeem. This, by the way, was inconceivable to the Stoic thinker. The Stoic believed himself to be “above the gods” since the gods did not share in the challenge of suffering (“gods” for the Stoics were the “fates”).
Stoicism could not remedy guilt because it had nothing with which to counter personal responsibility other than cognitive resignation of one’s responsibility: one could only be responsible for what was within one’s limited scope of control. No problem there, except that there is enough guilt within one’s limited scope to activate guilt anxiety. One need not be personally responsible for, say, global warming in order for guilt to decimate one’s soul. Guilt requires no religious import either. Guilt has all the life it needs from simple disobedience to personal conscience.
The courage to face one’s own guilt does not lead one to the tidy fortification of resignation, but rather to the question of salvation: can I be forgiven?
Forgiving oneself is a good start, gaining the forgiveness of others is beneficial, but both are insufficient if one’s aim is to redeem all the soulish terrain which guilt has in custody.
It is this anxiety—existential guilt—which is crucifying this current generation. The evidence is all around us, and those of us in the mental health fields have a particularly acute awareness of just how deep this issue runs. That is not to say that anxiety of death and meaninglessness are not serious as well, but only that, in my estimation, guilt anxiety has a stronger link to a greater abundance of anxiety issues today than the former two. But beyond psychology and mere mental health, guilt (and its elevated cousin, shame) is soul crushing, in ways that the other two are not. And as stated at the beginning, Stoicism will not bail us out of this one.