Stoicism as a Second Language
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re traveling in a foreign land. You don’t speak the language and you’ve never been there before. You’re not familiar with the geography, the customs, or the ways of life of its people. Everyone seems friendly, but you don’t know how to interact with them. You’re not there by choice. Something happened in your native country that forced you to leave. You can’t go back. This is your new home now and you’ll just have to make the best of it.
For some of us, this strange territory is the land of Stoicism, and that unsettling feeling is our astonishment at arriving, unexpectedly, in such an unusual place. Perhaps you (like me) never planned to end up here, but something led you to flee from conventional opinion and look for another way of living. Maybe you don’t want to spend your whole life mired in material acquisition and jockeying for social status. Or you’re anxious or depressed, and you’re looking for a beautiful, peaceful place to restore your mental health. Perhaps a traumatic event in your life led you to seek shelter in a stable, safe sanctuary. Maybe all of the above.
Whatever the reasons for your departure, you’ve come to the right place. Stoicism is a philosophy of life that teaches you how to live a good and meaningful life, finding happiness and security in the refuge of your own character. As a Stoic, you learn how to overcome hardship and adversity, how to find joy in the particular circumstances of your own unique life—whatever they may be—and how to care deeply for the people around you. You learn how to see the world clearly, dissolving your unruly ego and negative emotions in the potent elixir of reality. In other words, you learn how to become fully human, igniting and fulfilling your potential for resilience, wisdom, and inner peace.
If that all sounds too good to be true, there is one little catch: to achieve all this, you have to work really, really hard. As in, you must work at becoming a better person day in and day out for years, decades, even a lifetime. There are no shortcuts to true happiness. You should know from the outset that your progress will indeed be real and noticeable, but it will be slow. But it will all be completely worth it.
When I first started learning about Stoicism years ago, I thought of my progress (metaphorically, of course) as if I were traveling through physical terrain, as described above. In the metaphorical land of Stoicism, I felt myself to be exploring the hills and valleys, forests and streams, and learning how to make the Stoic lands my own. But since then, I’ve come realize that a different metaphor is much more apt. Sure, becoming familiar with the territory is important, but it will only take you so far. What’s important is not canvassing the terrain but learning the language. Learning Stoicism is like learning a new language.
Stoicism is, among other things, a way of being in and seeing the world. It demands of us a certain mindset, a reprogramming of our automatic responses, a restructuring of our mental organization. As we learn to navigate the world through the lens of Stoic virtue, we are dropping our old mental habits and replacing them with new ones. We are forging new pathways through our brains. We hope, with practice, to become so “fluent” in our life philosophy that we can respond automatically and correctly in all situations.
If you’ve ever learned a second language as a teenager or adult, you can see how learning Stoicism is similar to learning a new language. When we learn a new language, we are also restructuring our brains to respond differently than they ever have before. Think about it. As you grew up, especially during the powerful critical period in early life when you learned to talk in your first language, your brain was trained to respond with certain words to certain situations. You, like all normally functioning humans, were primed for language learning. You listened carefully for a while to the people around you, then started learning how to make the sounds of your native language. You started small, with individual sounds, then you gradually moved on to words and phrases, mimicking and mirroring your caregivers. All the while, your brain was forming connections between sounds and meanings, so that language became meaningful to you as a way of communicating with others.
As you grew older and practiced applying language in novel situations, the linguistic connections within your brain grew stronger and faster. This enabled you to process language and speak more efficiently. With every passing year you learned new words, new grammatical structures, and you added new life experiences to your functional repertoire. You became so good at speaking your language that you could do it in your sleep. You could do it without even thinking about it. You could even talk to yourself, in your own mind, using your language to manipulate abstract concepts, argue with yourself, and conduct extensive internal monologues about whatever was going on in your life. You still can. And with every passing year, those neural connections you established in childhood become more deeply ingrained. The more you exercise those linguistic habits, the more firmly entrenched they become.
Unless, of course, you start speaking a new language. When you start speaking a new language, you are, in effect, changing your linguistic habits. You are now making different sound-meaning connections in your brain. You start responding to new combinations of sounds (in the form of words and sentences in your new language). You start to think differently. If you practice enough and continue to develop your new linguistic habits, you change the way your brain responds to stimuli. You might even reach the point where you think entirely in your new language. You dream in your new language. You talk to yourself in your new language. In other words, you become fluent.
When you stop to think about it, it’s absolutely incredible that our brains are capable of learning a new language as an adult. Ok, it’s amazing that we’re all primed to learn something as complex as language to begin with, but it’s even more impressive that we can reverse years of linguistic habit and learn a new way of thinking in the middle of our lives. The more neuroscientists study the human brain, the more they discover how malleable and open to learning it is. We continue learning—creating new mental connections—throughout our whole lives. True, an older brain is not as primed for learning as a young brain, but that doesn’t mean older people stop learning. And when it comes to learning a new language, adults actually have some advantages over children.
As everyone knows, young children seem to pick up languages effortlessly, and it seems like as adults we have to work very, very hard to learn a new language. But in some ways adults actually have an advantage in language learning. We already have a lot of knowledge about the world and about how language works, so we can often fill new information in these pre-existing “slots” in our minds. We are much better than children at learning by principle, which, in the context of second language learning, means grammar. Given motivation and appropriate input, we can learn very quickly by deploying familiar learning strategies.
Whereas child language learning is often implicit (i.e., it happens without conscious awareness), adult language learning is more often explicit (i.e., it requires conscious awareness of what you’re doing). This makes adult learning seem more effortful, but that doesn’t make it less powerful. Remember: you have within you the power, at any age, to create new connections within your brain. That is quite an amazing power.
The obvious point I’m making here is that if your brain is capable of learning new linguistic habits as an adult, it is also capable of learning new psychological habits. And that is exactly what we are doing when we learn a life philosophy like Stoicism. We are reversing years—perhaps decades—of previously learned thought processes, replacing them with new responses to the world. We are rewiring our brains, strengthening new neural pathways and abandoning the old, unhealthy ones. We can learn to become fluent in our chosen philosophy of life—even if, perhaps, we still speak with an accent.
That’s why I think it’s time for a new metaphor of our life philosophy: Stoicism as a second language. The more you think about it, the more parallels you find between learning Stoicism and learning a new language. Both require theory and practice. First you learning the basic principles (grammatical principles for a language or philosophical principles for Stoicism), followed by exercises and then practice out in the real world. Both involve rewiring your brain and changing your mental habits. Both change our internal responses to external stimuli, altering the way we interact with other people and even the way we talk to ourselves.
Naturally, I don’t want to push the metaphor too far and suggest that language learning and philosophical learning are identical. Of course they’re not. But they are similar enough to be instructive. The beauty of an apt metaphor is that it pulls out something important about the similarity of two objects, while not insisting that they are alike in every way.
The ancient Stoics understood this well and employed metaphors extensively in their teachings. The ancient writings we have, not just from practical ethicists like Seneca but going all the way back to Zeno and Chrysippus, are chock full of metaphors. Take your pick: The dog tied to the cart, who is dragged along behind whether or not he accepts his fate. Marcus Aurelius urging himself to look upon his courtiers as branches of his own family tree. Or my personal favorite, Epictetus reminding his students that the human mind is like a fig tree; it will blossom in its own good time. Metaphorical thinking is so common in Stoic writings that you couldn’t avoid it if you tried.
Ancient Stoicism, like Greek philosophy in general, had several powerful metaphors for the role of philosophy in life. For example, we frequently see philosophy compared to medicine, as when Epictetus compares a philosopher’s school to a doctor’s surgery (Discourses, 3.23, 30). Philosophy is said to heal the soul in the same way medicine heals the body. Another favorite analogy is philosophy as the art of living. We are like artists working with the material of our own lives. (John Sellars explores this theme at length in The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, which I highly recommend.)
Examining these metaphors helps us think very carefully about what we’re actually doing when we do Stoicism. If philosophy is an art, for example, what kind of art is it? Is it more like painting, where we produce a product, or like dancing, where the performance is the product? What kind of technical skill is involved in this art? How do we become proficient in it? In the process of answering these questions, we clarify what we mean by philosophy through the process of comparing it to what we already know about life. The very complex question of how to infuse daily life with abstract philosophical principles becomes much more manageable when we metaphorically relate it to something we know quite well.
If you’ve never tried to learn a second language at any point in your life, then the idea of Stoicism as a second language may not have much meaning for you. But I’m willing to bet that if you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll have studied a second language before, even if it was only two years of Spanish in high school. And if you’re someone who never had much success learning a new language, don’t worry! This won’t be nearly as painful. Way back in those high school or university days, you probably weren’t convinced that Spanish or French was very important for you. You didn’t have any good reason to really learn the language. But when it comes to Stoicism as a second language, I know you’re highly motivated. (How do I know? Because if you weren’t motivated, you wouldn’t have read through all that stuff about language learning and metaphors!)
And here’s one of the most important similarities between Stoicism and a second language: they both require heaps of motivation. As an adult, you’re not going to make much progress with a new language unless you really want to. It takes effort. You need a good reason to invest that much time and effort, to get out of your comfort zone and risk misunderstanding or embarrassment. Whether your motivation is career, love, or something else, the stronger it is, the better.
Likewise, if you want to make progress as a Stoic, you need a clear motivation that will sustain you through all the hard work of developing your philosophical outlook. I can tell you what my motivation is for all the time and effort I put into learning Stoicism: happiness. I want to be happy, and Stoicism offers by far the best route to happiness that I’ve ever seen. (Stoics think true happiness only results as a by-product of virtue. When we strive for virtue we also strive for happiness, because we are at our happiest when we fulfill our capacity for human excellence.)
I assume that you, too, want to be happy, and that you're willing to put effort into cultivating contentment. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the more I adopt a Stoic mindset and Stoic practices, the happier I become. The farther I go, the less I ever want to go back. As a refugee in the land of Stoicism, I want to settle in and learn the language. I want to become a fluent Stoic.
So while the old metaphors, like Stoicism as medicine or an art, are as good as ever, I'd like to respectfully submit a new metaphor to stand alongside them: Stoicism as a second language. Just as the stories we tell ourselves matter to our experience of the world, the metaphors we use to describe our experience can shape our understanding. Metaphors matter. And the metaphor of Stoicism as a second language highlights aspects of the learning process that are not salient elsewhere. Our capacity for changing our brains, even as adults. Our ability to talk to ourselves in a different way and respond differently to external stimuli. Our aptitude for working from abstract principles to practical application. These are all important elements of the process of inner transformation.
I hope I've convinced you to think about Stoicism in a different way, and maybe to focus on new aspects of the learning process. Like learning a new language, learning Stoicism requires years of committed effort. Stay focused on your reasons for learning, and be patient with yourself. When you look back and see how far you've come, it will all be worth it.