When you are suffering from a growing inner disturbance about global warming and the destruction of the planets life-forms, being a good friend to yourself is vital. The Roman philosopher Seneca knew befriending your self was important. Like all Stoics, he understood it was a step towards nourishing and maintaining a capacity for wisdom.
In Seneca’s Stoicism, friendship is a commitment made only after judging a person’s character solid. He doesn’t prescribe what those qualities look like in a person before committing to be their friend, he leaves that to you. Friendship is about feelings and emotions as much as it is about commitment, loyalty and trust. It is not a simple matter of forming a mental judgment and clicking accept. As we see again and again in the Moral Epistles, Seneca’s affection for Lucilius is ever present.
Being a good friend to others often depends on being a good friend to yourself. Maintaining good friendships relies on ecological intelligence. When you acknowledge your importance in the good of your life it is easier to recognize others for their own sake. It will also become apparent just how much of your life is due to you, your choices, and the values you continue to support. In that way you develop your understanding of the Stoic maxim that knowing what you can control is key to joy and tranquillity.
What is within your control
When you start reflecting on what is within your control you begin to understand the extent to which external things and people contribute to your sense of a good life. Then you are faced with the fact that many of these things and all of those people are beyond your control. Furthermore what happens to the important people in your life is also beyond your control. This is a central concern of the Moral epistles and stoicism more generally.
Regardless of their value to you, regardless of how much you love others for their own sake a Stoic thinks you should be indifferent to what happens to them and between you. Which does not mean you will actually be indifferent if you were to lose them. For the Stoic, life without loved ones is still a trial. Stoicism is an aid to bear the emotional turmoil of such trials well. The first step in bearing up well under trial is to be your own friend, not exclusively, but whole heartedly.
Emotions and the Stoics
A contemporary way to think about emotions based on Stoic ideas was been mapped out by the US philosopher Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought. She successfully argues emotions are the embodiment of a judgment, a thought or cognition arising from living in an environment that is peopled, storied and layered with more meanings than objects and people. Emotions take many forms in people’s lives’, they can be general like a mood, situational like a sharp dagger of anger, concrete like overwhelming grief or a background element of how a person experiences their life.
Invariably emotions are about things that we are attached to and cannot fully control. With grief for instance the attachment forms and our emotions are such that the loss of that thing will cause an emotion, and often just the threat of loss can cause fear. This is a holistic and ecological way of thinking about emotions.
In Nussbaum’s neo-Stoic view of emotion, a belief or thought is necessary for emotions to form. Without the thought there can be no emotion. For instance to have the emotion of anger it is necessary to believe some significant damage has taken place to either the person feeling the emotion or someone who is important to them.
As an example, imagine a traveler who returns to their table in a public place and cannot see the bag they left on their chair. If they believe someone else has stolen their bag, and it’s useful and valuable contents are now lost, they could experience several, powerful emotions. If it turns out one of the traveler’s party had moved the bag to ensure it wasn’t stolen, then the traveler’s emotions dissolve as the thoughts of what had been lost and the travails that would have caused dissolve.
Similarly if you hold the belief that you are of little worth, that you have been defeated, emotions of sadness can form. If you are to befriend yourself it would be normal to believe that you are a worthwhile human being with many fine qualities. Beliefs like that have an important role to play in our background emotions.
Your idea of a good human life
Another aspect of the neo-Stoic view of emotions is the role a person’s concept of flourishing life plays in forming emotions. This is the idea that ‘the perceptions and beliefs’ about an ‘object of an emotion’ involve something about the objects value and importance to their flourishing. We don’t form emotions about weeds on the side of the road, they are meaningless to us. We may however, experience emotions about the weeds that strangle our prized rose bush while we are away on holiday.
In befriending ourselves our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves will correspond with our conception of the good life. This will influence how we feel about ourselves. If our concept of a flourishing life demands the way we live must replicate, in some way, the life of the rich and famous, and our lives are nothing like theirs, our emotions about ourselves will not be healthy. Living in such a way is not compatible with being a good friend to yourself.
Distorted or mistaken views of the way things are can lead to negative emotions. So in the friendship with yourself it is important to remain grounded in what and who you are, rather than an idea of what you want to be. Contemporary happiness experts might think focusing future goals, on what you want to become is a way of keeping a positive mental attitude but the Stoics would disagree. To them that was a way to unhappiness.
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