How Pessimism Cheered Me Up

I called my college to see about finishing my degree and the response I got was less than favorable. I was basically told that I couldn’t receive my degree without an internship or already having a job in the field. I knew I needed an internship from the beginning, of course, but I was also told that there was a class substitute if I couldn’t get an internship. The reason I’m hesitant about getting an internship now is most internships are unpaid or paid minimum wage and I pay for classes out of pocket. I can’t quit or put my current job on hold because I’ve already eaten through all of my savings to pay for classes as it is. I’m still waiting to hear back about the class substitute, but it looks like there actually isn’t one available next semester.

Naturally I was very upset with this development and when I talked to my mom about it she sent me the link to this video by Alain de Botton, a British-Swiss author, on Pessimism. Listening to the video while cleaning my room did wonders for cheering me up. de Botton is an entertaining lecturer. During the video, however, there were a few moments of “where have I hear this before?” and a few google searches later I stumbled upon Stoicism.

Stoicism is a branch of Greek Philosophy that later made it’s way and was adopted in parts of Rome. Three of the most well known (“well known” in the sense that they’re writing survived the passage of time) ancient stoics include a slave who later became a teacher, a senator, and an emperor.

When most people think Stoicism they think:
In english “stoic” means suppressing your emotions, keeping a stiff upper lip, and all that. Well turns out that’s not what Stoicism is about at all. The word Stoic came from the Greek Stoa Poikile a famous Athenian site which literally means, “painted porch” where Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Philosophical School Stoicism, met with his students.

Stoicism follows the ideas of Virtue Ethics: “Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences” (via).  This means that, according to Stoicism at least, happiness and virtue is determined on the individual level. Virtue can be broken down into five components: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Nature. The first four probably sound familiar and that’s not a coincidence as they have the same source. The last one is not referring to Mother Nature, but human nature. The stoics believe that humans are by nature social creatures capable of reason and following this principle is part of being virtuous. (Sorry, hermits)

Stoicism follows the teachings of Socrates in the belief that suffering is caused by ignorance. This isn’t meant to be a passive philosophy like, “You’re not suffering because you’re living in a war torn country and you’re starving; you’re suffering because you’re ignorant” and more is of a “Worrying means you suffer twice” kind of thing. Having reason and clarity of the situation allows you to make the best the best decisions possible without being hindered by negative emotions such as anger or anguish. Stoicism teaches that real happiness is virtue and virtue isn’t dependent on education, wealth, or health but your individual actions.

Stoicism also breaks down things into things within our power and things beyond our power. Things within our power include opinions, aims, desires, aversions, ect… and things outside our power include our body, property, reputation, office, ect… I really appreciate this idea because I feel like it takes a lot of pressure off of me actually. Basically I can control my opinions and my actions, but I can’t control what people think or say about it.

I know it’s been said in more ways than one by many people that sexuality is not a choice, but it wasn’t until reading up about within/beyond power that it really sank in that being asexual was not somehow my fault, that it was beyond my power. Having it phrased that way specifically was what really helped me let it go.

So, I’m going to keep looking into Stoicism because, oddly enough, it’s making a comeback. There is a modern movement that is bringing awareness of this ancient philosophy and adapting it to a modern era.

And I’m changing my major to math. We’ll see how it goes.



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