I’ve skirted with Stoicism before through Nassim Taleb and Tim Ferris’ podcast but this book was my first deep dive into Stoic philosophy. The School for Gods is set as a conversation between a man and his spiritual guide, the Dreamer. The student, who also serves as the narrator, leads a somewhat troubled life of broken relationships, unhealthy living and numerous bad decisions but the circumstances aren’t particularly relevant. The comments could be directed at any of us. The Dreamer takes a harsh approach to pointing out the student’s faults, forcing him into self-reflection and correction. I gather that the harshness is a characteristic of Stoicism…
The cutting tone probably turns many away from the ideas of Stoicism. It certainly doesn’t seem like a good philosophy to openly impose on others because one could easily come across as arrogant, unsympathetic and lacking in empathy, which is a dangerous place in the current world of social media vigilantism. Just imagine you were to suggest a marginalised community should look internally for the answer – your timeline could look like a mess in the morning. Despite these understandable criticisms, I think critics missing the essence of the philosophy, which contains powerful ideas.
Stoicism encourages the individual to turn inwardly to find the solution to problems. As I said, it wouldn’t be wise to recommend this approach to an adversary on social media but it’s an incredibly useful tool because we have much greater control over ourselves, our thoughts and our actions than over others. I love the central themes of self-determination and personal responsibility for one’s actions, rather than seeking to blame others. This approach causes action, rather than complaints, which is far more likely to result in positive outcomes.
The Dreamer encourages constant self-reflection, refocusing of attention towards one’s dreams and constructive intention in one’s actions. All interactions are seen as a reflection of internal circumstances, a mirror of oneself, not unconnected random events. Seeing the world through this light, each event is an opportunity to self-reflect, correct and improve. I think this is an incredibly powerful idea. All interactions have the potential to highlight our weaknesses because they can always be better than the before. Could we have planned, communicated, executed, prioritised or care more – maybe? Well, then why are you blaming anyone else for the outcome? Be better next time!
As I said, there is a harshness to the philosophy but for me, personally, I think it’s beneficial to approach my current challenges through this light. I need to take charge, take responsibility, take action and move forward with determination, rather than look for excuses to procrastinate and underachieve.
The explanation of frugality and fasting was insightful. These actions are taken not merely to spend less, save more or for other practical financial or health reasons. Rather frugality and fasting are used in order to reduce dependence and addition. Men become addicted and dependent on numerous external comforts, which reduces our focus on what is really important. This concept really resonates with me because I’ve been pondering the way in which we get addicted to all sorts of worldly pleasures. Social media, the internet and news flow are the areas that really trouble me at the moment – far too much time is wasted in my life on these. I expect books, courses and counselling will be directed towards these addictions in the years ahead.
Seen through this light, I better understand that the principles of frugality and fasting don’t necessarily imply a meagre life of bread and water. These principles are tools to remember that we don’t need to be dependent on anything external outside of ourselves. We can still enjoy extravagance, celebration and flamboyance but there is no need to make a permanent connection between these actions and consistent happiness. Making the wrong connections will lead to dependence, addiction and risk defeating real happiness. Happiness is an internal pursuit of our dreams through consistent elevation of oneself towards a higher level of Being – that sounds like its straight out of the mouth of the Dreamer, the teacher in this Stoic story. I’ve got a stream of great quotes from the Dreamer.
I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in philosophy. Literal readers might take more offence than I’m willing to contend with. I’m sure that anyone who is truly looking for personal self-improvement would really benefit from engaging with the ancient ideas of Stoicism though. I expect to see them find expression in my life.