Misconceptions about Stoicism

People who are not fully open to something new will tend to focus on reasons to avoid this new thing, even if those reasons are false. The philosophy of Stoicism is no exclusion to this custom. Today, I’m going to share a few common misconceptions people have about Stoicism and why we should learn the truth before coming to a judgement.

Stoics are Cold and Emotionless

This is the most famous misconception people have about Stoics. In fact, it is so ingrained in peoples’ minds that the word “stoic” has become synonymous with “emotionless”. There simply isn’t a greater misuse of the word stoic in this case.

The way Stoics deal with death, failure and other losses is often seen as an absence of sentiments and emotions. That is simply not true. There is a suitable quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where the merchant asks the ones who treat him as inferior: “if you cut us, do we not bleed? The same plagues that kill your people don’t kill us?”

The point of this example is that we are all the same. Stoics are still human; they still have emotions. They feel love and pain. The difference is that they control their emotions instead of letting it control them. Stoics find no benefit in wallowing in negative emotions or labelling themselves as victims. Bad things happen to people every day, so why should we waste time fighting or questioning the causes of this suffering when we can be learning to control our reactions to suffering?

We are all very judgmental by nature, but that is something Stoicism teaches us to avoid, even when the target of judgement is ourselves. I will offer an example where, many years ago, there was a horrendous crime where a young girl was murdered. Her mother arrived at the scene later, but she looked completely unshaked and didn’t even shed a tear. Many people thought she was involved in the murder based on her reaction, but it later came out in a documentary that the mother had to be heavily sedated to calm her hysterics, and that was the explanation for her robotic reaction.

Although the mother had to be sedated in this case, we can imagine that Stoics react in a similar fashion. That this is not because they feel no emotions, but because they do not let those emotions overpower them. This allows them to make better informed decisions based on reason, rather than potentially misleading emotions. 

Stoics Worship Death

Some people think that because Stoics do not fear death, or because they embrace it under the idea of memento mori, then they must worship it as something good. However, Stoics do not worship death in any sense and they certainly do not perceive it as “good”, as virtue is the only good. To a Stoic, death is entirely indifferent. 

Furthermore, meditating on death is a very pragmatic exercise. Ask yourself: what is the only certainty I have in life right now? The answer is: someday I will die. There is nothing you can do to avoid death, and not talking or thinking about it will not postpone it or allow you to escape it. Acknowledging that death is inevitable is a really good way to focus on the parts of your life that requires attention and improvement.

This reminder makes you question your beliefs, your fears, the way you are living your life, and how you are dealing with problems. It makes you rethink the way you spend or waste your time. It makes you reestablish your list of priorities and values. Stoics do not worship death. In fact, they do quite the opposite – they worship life. Death simply serves as a reminder for us to value our life.

Stoics are Conformists

People tend to believe there is a negative aspect to the Stoics’ method of acceptance and even label them as conformists. That is completely wrong. A conformist would accept anything without any reasoning, but a Stoic would never accept anything without considered reason and logic.

The first part of the Stoic thought process consists in separating the world in two categories: what they can control and what they cannot. The second part is to do what is possible to the part they can control. The last part is to accept the things they can’t control as out of their power.

That thought process is incredibly wise and doesn’t appear conformist at all. Why would anyone discuss, or stress over, or fight about something that is impossible to change? That’s a huge waste of time and energy, and a Stoic is highly concerned with utilizing their time and energy.

Let’s say you wake up and get ready for work, but when you try to start the car, it won’t work. You try a couple times and nothing changes. Perhaps you start to get angry and kick one of the tyres or throw curses at it, but is that going to make the car start? The answer is obviously no. The car is outside your control, but you still have control over your decisions. Even though you’re going to be late, the more reasoned approach is to call a friend or find another way to work. 

Stoicism may not be flawless, but the most common arguments against this philosophy also happen to be entirely false. So, next time you listen to criticism about a topic you are new to, such as Stoicism, think it over. Hold your judgement until you know more information, and implement your own reason to understand the truth of the situation. Then you are properly equipped to make your own informed decision.