Earlier this year, the Northern White Rhino was declared functionally exinct after the death of Sudan, the last male of the species. Unless another male is found – perhaps misclassified as another species – the remaining two females will be the last of their kind.
And that’s tragic beyond words. As a kid, I assumed that species that went extinct in the past did so because we didn’t know better, or didn’t care about animals and the environment. I figured that, now we do know better and now we do care, we’d do better at preserving species. As a kid, I never thought about funding, or that governments might be unable, or unwilling, to do something to help. I never thought that people would hunt endangered species because they were endangered. I never thought that conservation is as much luck and hope as science and that, despite all your best efforts, you might still fail.
In my naivety, I honestly never thought I’d see an extinction in my lifetime, but the Northern White Rhino isn’t the first and, unless a miracle occurs, it won’t be that last. I wanted to do something to mark the passing of a species – the loss of a branch of our extended family – and to do something to help me grok that we will never see these animals again.
So I’m doing extinction portraits. A wreath, a halo, the sun setting on another unique species we’ve lost forever. I’m researching conservation charities and I’m going to be selling prints and giving the profits to organisations that are working to save species on the brink.
After picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at a bookshop clearance sale, I’ve been reading up on Stoicism, and the more I read, the more I like the sound of it.
The stated aim of Stoics is to achieve tranquillity of mind, which, for a chronic worrier, sounds wonderful but utterly unachievable. But I’ll try most things once, so I’ve read a collection of Stoic texts and the lessons do seem to be of the ‘easy to practice, hard to master’ variety. I’m told there’s a lot of overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism, especially around the idea of non-attachment (I’ve never read too deeply into Buddhism, but that tallies with what little I have read), and it seems to mesh with mindfulness and meditation, which means I can build on what I’m already doing.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”
Stoic values (virtues)
Navigating complex situations in a logical, calm, informed manner. Translated variously as intelligence, prudence or mindfulness, the Stoics cultivated wisdom, valuing rational thought, science, and knowing what in the world is good, what is bad, and what is neither.
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous — even death is terrible only if we fear it.”
Exercising self restraint and moderation in all aspects of life. Epictetus said that the worst of vices are lack of courage and lack of self-control, and mentions several times in the Enchiridon that a student of Stoicism should look to act out their virtues rather than talk about them*.
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
Treating others with fairness, even when they’ve done wrong. Other people’s failings aren’t our concern – we don’t have any control over anyone’s thoughts or actions but our own, so we should look to being the best person we can be. People can only act according to their nature, and we can’t expect them to do otherwise. If someone’s behaviour bothers us, it’s because we expected them to act contrary to their nature; we can either try to correct them or accept that they’re the type of person who acts like that and lower our expectations accordingly.
“Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them, or learn to bear them.”
Facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity Some of the sources I looked at described courage as being analogous to endurance, determination or even industriousness. It looks to be about having the perseverance to continue, despite minor (or major) setbacks, and to follow what you believe to be the right course of action, despite opposition or ridicule.
“Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
Everything in life – friends, family, health, wealth. prestige, even life itself – is transitory and we will eventually, inevitably, lose them. By practising non-attachment, Stoics aim to prevent themselves from becoming distressed at their loss. Epictetus suggests that we think about the things we value in abstract definitions to prevent ourselves getting too attached to any one specific person or thing – I love, not my partner, but human beings in general; I am fond of, not the specific mug I use at work, but mugs as a whole; I love, not my job, but being meaningfully occupied.
Locus of control
We have control over a very small set of things in the world, namely our actions, thoughts and desires. External things, like whether people like us or if we’re going to succeed at a venture, are all beyond our control and worrying about them is an exercise in futility, because we can’t do anything about them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare – when packing for a holiday, it’s sensible to bring some clothes suitable for wet or colder weather, instead of assuming the forecast of wall-to-wall sunshine is going to be accurate, but there’s no sense in worrying about what the weather is going to do, and even less in trying to change it. We can’t do anything about things beyond our control, but we can mitigate the risk and prepare for the worst-case scenario. For example, driving is (statistically) one of the most dangerous things I do on a daily basis, but I wear a seat belt, obey the speed limit, maintain a appropriate braking distance and check my mirrors before manoeuvring. I control the things I can, but I have to accept that everything else is out of my hands.
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”
I’m not sure how authentic this technique is, but it’s been recommended from a variety of sources. As you acquire more things, you become complacent about what you have and desire things you don’t have. This leads to strife and discomfort, especially if the thing you desire is something you can’t have. By imagining life without the things or people, you love refreshes your joy in what you already have, making you grateful for them and less complacent. Additionally, having practised grieving for them can help buffer you against their loss in that you won’t have so many regrets or things left unsaid.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.”
Stoicism and me
On the face of it, Stoicism seems like a pretty grim outlook – regularly imagine if life was so much worse than it is, eschew nice things in order to “build character”, accept other people’s crummy behaviour as par for the course – but I’m finding it immensely helpful. I’m an anxious person, so taking a realistic look at what I can and can’t control, and then acknowledging that what I can’t control isn’t worth worrying about, is useful to me. For a long time, I was paralysed by the idea of embarrassment and failure and the fear of being thought stupid or foolish, but Stoicism has helped me to accept that what other people think of me isn’t my problem, and that’s liberating. The other thing I have long struggled with is a sense of my own mortality. The sense I’m wasting my precious, finite time – has wasted more of my time that I care to think about. While I talk about being death-positive, I don’t know that I’ve really internalised that, and I need to push through, accept that there are certain things that I can’t control (I have to work, I have to eat) and focus on the time I do have. Mindfulness should help here, and hopefully Stoicism will give me a framework to practice within.
“Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”
That said, the main area I see myself struggling in is in temperance. My self-control is very poor in certain areas (snacks and books, mostly), so that’s my primary area of focus. Snacking is easiest to establish rules around – not eating between scheduled meals, proscribing certain types of food and drink, the usual – but sticking to them is going to be harder, especially in the face of temptation.
As far as reading goes, I considered making a rule that I have to read two books for every book I buy, but tackling my to-read pile already feels like climbing the North Face of the Eiger, and I have a horrible feeling that imposing such a rule means I’ll be found crushed to death under my books in short order. Limiting myself to one new book a month would be more practical.
No shopping for non-essential things on Sundays and bank holidays
No more than one new book a month
Read at least one book a month
No fizzy pop
No deviating from the meal plan
* Epictetus did follow this by saying that a student of Stoicism should refrain from talking about their philosophy, as wanting to talk about Stoicism shows they haven’t grokked it and will only mislead the people they’re trying to teach. In that light, take what I’ve written here as my personal notes, and check the references for more information: