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Stoicism as The Serenity Prayer on Steroids
Every so often I receive emails from people who have struggled to cope with their own alcoholism or that of their loved ones. They tell me how they’ve found great support and consolation in the writings of ancient Stoic philosophers, such as The Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Those who are familiar both with the Stoics and the Twelve Step Program often recognize connections between them. The Serenity Prayer, for instance, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, neatly encapsulates one of the most characteristic doctrines of Stoic philosophy.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught his students the same thing:
What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. — Discourses, 1.1
There are countless other references in the Stoic literature to making a firm distinction between what’s under our control and everything else: what we do versus what merely happens to us. We should take greater responsibility for what’s up to us, according to Stoicism, and get less upset about what is not. Wisdom consists largely in bearing this simple — almost commonsense — distinction in mind and being clearer about its practical and emotional implications for us in daily life.
Modern Stoics tend to call this idea the “dichotomy of control” or “Stoic fork”. However Stoicism offers much more than just this wise maxim — it’s a complete philosophy of life. One person who contacted me about alcoholism and Stoicism therefore described it as “the Serenity Prayer on steroids”.
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The most influential psychological principle of Stoicism comes from another one of Epictetus’ sayings:
It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things. — Encheiridion, 5
That became the inspiration for modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based approach to psychotherapy today. Both Stoicism and CBT are based on the idea that our emotions are largely — if not exclusively — determined by our underlying beliefs. From that shared premise they draw similar conclusions about how best to change feelings by changing our voluntary thoughts (cognitions) and actions (behaviour).
For the Stoics, the beliefs that upset us ultimately take the form of strong value judgments about things outside our direct control being either extremely bad or extremely good, leading to excessive fear or desire respectively. The Stoics argued that it was irrational — a veritable recipe for neurosis — to have a strong desire to get or avoid external things insofar as they are beyond our direct control. It’s healthier to focus on our own voluntary actions instead and take more responsibility for the way we respond to the situations that befall us.
We need to learn to do our own work, in a sense, by focusing more attention on what we can do rather than worrying about the things fate throws at us. When we can’t change something we need to learn to accept that fact with Stoic indifference. As Shakespeare put it:
Things without all remedy should be without regard. — Macbeth
The Eleventh Step uses more religious language to express this attitude of emotional acceptance in dealing with alcoholism:
[We sought] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
We should, in other words, learn to accept reality — the Will of God, if you prefer theological language — and adapt accordingly to the demands of our situation.
The Eleventh Step also contains the following retrospective meditation technique.
When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others.
“After making our review”, the authors say, “we ask God’s forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken.” This obviously resembles an influential technique described in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which was adopted by the Stoics. We find it in the writings of Epictetus, Seneca, and also in a book by Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ court physician, about Stoic therapy practices. Before retiring to sleep each night, it advises us to review the events of the day three times asking ourselves three questions: What we did well? What we did badly? What we omitted to do?
The Big Book continues by describing a complementary prospective meditation technique:
On awakening let us think about the twenty-four hours ahead. We consider our plans for the day. Before we begin, we ask God to direct our thinking, especially asking that it be divorced from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives. Under these conditions we can employ our mental faculties with assurance, for after all God gave us brains to use. Our thought-life will be placed on a much higher plane when our thinking is cleared of wrong motives.
This also resembles morning meditation practices found in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, and the writings of the Stoics.
The Stoics on Alcohol
So how did the Stoics view alcohol? The historian Diogenes Laertius, a “doxographer” who recorded the views of Greek philosophers, says that the Stoics typically drank wine in moderation, but would not allow themselves to get drunk. Stobaeus, another doxographer, tells us that the Stoics classified excessive love of wine as a disease, although curiously they considered hating it too much to be one as well. Although the Stoics typically appear to have favoured moderation, they may perhaps have agreed with the Twelve Step Program’s abstinence approach for individuals who struggle to limit their drinking.
Stoics had to be careful they were abstaining for the right reasons, though. Epictetus seems to assume that his students have sometimes become “water drinkers”, presumably abstaining from wine, for the purposes of training in Stoicism (Discourses, 3.14). He criticizes them for telling everyone they meet “I drink water”, as if the goal is to show off. He says that if what they’re doing is good for them they should be satisfied with that and shut up instead of going on about it to the annoyance of others.
The Stoic wise man (or woman) views alcohol itself with studied indifference and focuses instead on the use he makes of it. Everything can be used either well or badly, according to the Stoics. So the wise man pays attention to the present moment and whether he is acting wisely or foolishly, with self-discipline or recklessness, in a healthy manner or an unhealthy one, and so on. To help ourselves make progress in this direction, we should actually set aside time to study how people we admire cope with temptation, trying to learn from their attitude and emulate their behaviour.
Marcus Aurelius’ most important role model was his adoptive father the emperor Antoninus Pius. Marcus writes in his notes that what was traditionally said of Socrates could be said of Antoninus: he was able to abstain from or enjoy those things that the majority of us are either too weak to abstain from or enjoy over-indulgently (Meditations, 1.16). Marcus says that Antoninus showed strength, endurance, and restraint whether he chose to abstain from something or partake in it, and that this is “the mark of someone who possesses a well-balanced and invincible character”.
The Emperor Lucius Verus
In my recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, I used stories from the life of Marcus Aurelius to illustrate ways Stoicism can be applied in practice to help us deal with psychological problems today. However, we can also learn from other people’s mistakes. Marcus’ temperance stood in contrast to the notorious self-indulgence of his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus. From the way Roman historians describe him it appears likely that he was an alcoholic. We’re told that when he was meant to be commanding the legions in the Parthian war instead he would spend his time throwing parties, gambling, and drinking. He was obsessed with the chariot races and had a huge crystal goblet made, named Volucer after his favourite horse, which we’re told “surpassed the capacity of any human draught”.
Lucius would get drunk and “wander about at night through taverns and brothels with only a common travelling-cap for a head-covering, revel with various rowdies, and engage in brawls, while concealing his identity”, according to the Historia Augusta. Sometimes he would stagger drunk into the cook-shops and throw heavy coins at the cups, smashing them, and “often, they say, when he returned, his face was beaten black and blue”. He liked to feast late into the night, until he passed out at his banqueting table, and had to be carried to bed by his servants. We’re told his health was “weakened by such follies of debauchery and extravagance”.
The same historian claims that shortly after being acclaimed emperor, Lucius’ character was revealed to be “weak and base” when he was supposed to be leading the Roman counter-offensive against a Parthian invasion. Indeed, “while a legate [a Roman general] was being slain, while legions were being slaughtered, while Syria meditated revolt, and the East was being devastated”, Lucius spent all of his time hunting in the countryside or partying with his entourage in the brothels and taverns of one pleasure resort after another.
We’re told Marcus was sorely tested by the vices of his brother, particularly his “excessive candour and hot-headed plain speaking”, described as the result of “natural folly”. Lucius was struggling to cope with his feelings, though. During the Parthian War, Lucius wrote to a family friend complaining in desperation of “the anxieties that have rendered me very miserable day and night, and almost made me think that everything was ruined.” He’s probably referring to problems negotiating with the hostile Parthians, but he was clearly overwhelmed by emotional distress. Binge drinking, casual sex, gambling, and partying became his way of coping, albeit badly, with the pressures of his role as Marcus’ junior co-emperor.
In The Meditations, Marcus arguably damns him with faint praise and says only that observing Lucius’ character compelled him to take better care of his own, although he was also reassured by his brother’s respect and affection (1.17). I think Marcus perhaps watched helpless as Lucius’ life disintegrated, and vowed that he would never let himself make the same mistakes. Instead, he spent decades improving his character through training in Stoicism. If Lucius had practised Stoicism like his brother could it have helped him?
Frank’s Recovery Story
Frank, a retired NYPD Officer, got in touch to tell me about the role Stoicism played in his own recovery:
In the rooms of AA with the Twelve Steps and my sponsor I built the archway that I walked through a free man, and which lead me to the Stoics. On my journey I was searching for anything that might help me spiritually because my childhood faith did not help nor did I want it. Then I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with what I was learning from going through the Twelve Steps. I read in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” I identified with these sayings and realized that they were along the same lines as the principles I was learning in AA. So I looked up Marcus Aurelius and discovered he was an emperor of Rome. The words “Stoic philosopher” appeared next to his name. So I began reading up on the Stoics.
Frank’s embrace of Stoicism reinforced and expanded what he’d learned from the Twelve Step Program. He was now more focused on taking responsibility for his own actions, more philosophical about setbacks, and more contented with life.
I’ve come to learn that I control very little! However, Stoic and Twelve Step principles such as looking for opportunities to experience gratitude in everything that happens to me good or bad — amor fati or “love of one’s fate” — have helped put me on the path of living happy joyous and free.
(Frank’s blog article Gratitude in my Attitude goes into more detail about his personal journey and Stoicism.)
Stoicism and Alcoholism
So what did the ancient Stoics have to say about alcohol and addiction? Well, the Stoics trained themselves to develop the virtue of temperance by practising various psychological techniques on a regular, often daily, basis. For example, they would often make an effort to describe things to themselves in very matter-of-fact language, like an ancient natural philosopher making observations about animal behaviour or a physician describing the symptoms of a disease. Stripping away emotive language and strong value judgments allowed them to retain a stronger grip on reality, which Stoics called having an “objective representation” (phantasia kataleptike).
When Marcus Aurelius gazed upon a bottle of the exquisite Falernian wine, therefore, he would remind himself that it was merely fermented grape juice, and that the fine meat dishes set before him were just the corpses of fish, birds, and pigs (Meditations, 6.13). We should strip away all the verbal embellishments that cloud our judgement of the things we desire and view the naked truth with total objectivity. Napoleon employed the same down-to-earth strategy by saying that a throne is merely a bench covered in velvet.
I think Stoicism appeals to many people who struggle with alcoholism because it offers more than just self-help advice. The language in which it’s expressed in the classics is often striking, beautiful, and memorable. These stories from ancient philosophy stick in people’s minds and their constant presence can help us to gradually find a new orientation in life whereas sound advice from modern self-help books is often more forgettable. Stoicism isn’t just a therapy, either, but a whole philosophy of life. People who embrace it find that it can give them the opportunity to recover a sense of purpose and direction in life, and in some cases that can help fill a void that they’d previously been using drugs or alcohol to conceal from themselves.
Most importantly, though, Stoicism is a philosophy that contains a call to action. The Stoics wanted us to apply reason to our lives, and engage in philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, but only insofar as it actually helps us to improve our characters. We also have to make decisions, arrive at conclusions, and put wisdom into practice. As Marcus Aurelius said:
Waste no more time arguing about what it means to be a good man and just be one. — Meditations, 10.16