Lesson 1: a broken camera is never as bad as a broken leg.
He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper; but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to any circumstances.
- David Hume
If the great Stoic philosophers lived long enough to see the invention of the camera, would they have dabbled in photography?
Who knows. Maybe, maybe not.
But if they did, how might they have applied Stoic principles to their work?
Before we answer that question, let’s begin with a brief introduction to Stoicism.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of philosophy dating back to the third century, B.C.
One of the core beliefs of Stoicism is that virtue is the key to happiness.
We can use the virtue of patience to navigate early morning traffic without becoming irritable.
When someone insults our photography, we can use the virtue of compassion for the person who needs to criticize others to feel complete.
Stoicism, then, concerns how we react to (and then judge) external events.
When we are stuck in traffic and late for work, the automatic judgment is negative.
But Stoic principles dictate that events outside of our control are neither good nor bad.
Sure, we could have controlled the situation by leaving home earlier. But that ship has sailed.
The only moment that we have is the present moment, and the only relevant detail is how we deal with it.
The act of being stuck in traffic is neither good nor bad.
Good can only come from a situation where we have exercised virtue, and virtue helps us deal with any situation with calm, accepting indifference.
Some Stoic ideas that we are better off accepting sooner rather than later:
- The world is unpredictable. People, the weather, traffic patterns. All unpredictable, and not likely to change any time soon.
- The length of time that we have on this Earth is fleeting. Make it count.
- The only thing that we control is ourselves. When we’re upset or perturbed, it’s usually over things that we can’t control.
So, our response to external events is the only thing requiring judgment.
Not the event itself.
On paper, this seems like a piece of cake.
But how many of us become irate in morning traffic?
How many of us sulk and ruminate when someone says something we don’t like?
Stoicism gives us the patience, courage, and wisdom to endure the unpredictability of life. It is not the absence of emotion or expression, but the reasoned choice to express emotion in the first place.
Which emotions are worth expressing, and which aren’t?
By extension, which events are worth reacting to?
There is nothing wrong with being jubilant at the birth of your first child, but becoming angry in traffic has no use whatsoever.
Anger will not move the traffic any faster, but most of us react anyway — even if we understand that it is a waste of energy.
If being late for work is the extent of our troubles, we should consider ourselves lucky.
The most famous Stoic philosophers dealt with some next level shit.
For 19 years, Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome’s great emperors. He encountered all manner of trials, tribulations, and triumphs.
He was, by some accounts, the most powerful man in the world.
But he was still a man, nonetheless. A mere mortal in a world full of Gods, myth, and superstition.
Aurelius suffered from debilitating health problems and had to endure the premature deaths of eight children.
He fought several wars, floods, and even an outbreak of a disease with a mortality rate of 25%.
To deal with the rigours of life, Marcus kept a private journal. It was later rediscovered, published, and entitled Meditations.
In his diary, he wrestled with issues such as living a good life, dealing with anger and making peace with death.
He wrote about humility, patience, kindness and empathy, reminding himself that these virtues be central to his life.
Marcus was aware of his own motivations. He had the rare ability among world leaders to question his actions and admit if they needed correction.
Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Five Good Emperors. Through disciplined attention to Stoic principles, he did not let the power or prestige of his position get the better of him.
If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.
- Marcus Aurelius
Seneca was a Roman philosopher, statesman, and playwright.
He came to prominence when appointed tutor to the teenage emperor Nero, a position he would hold for 13 years.
Seneca was a more controversial Stoic than Marcus Aurelius. Many Stoic principles that Seneca espoused contradicted the way he lived his life.
During his time as an adviser to Nero, he became very wealthy. But he was also party to some of Nero’s most unspeakable transgressions.
For example, Nero conspired to murder his own mother, Agrippina, fearing that she was conspiring to murder him.
Seneca offered his reluctant support to the matricide, writing to the Senate on behalf of Nero in justification of the decision.
But Agrippina, it turns out, was the woman who campaigned to have Seneca removed from exile to tutor her son.
This created somewhat of a conflict for Seneca.
He enjoyed the wealth and influence of his position, but he was serving an emperor that did not display Stoic virtues.
He was, to reference The Simpsons, selling his soul for a donut.
And he was not what you’d call a virtuous man, at least compared to Marcus Aurelius.
He was more of a “do as I say, not as I do” philosopher.
Nevertheless, he did try and remove himself from Nero’s employ, a deed for which he was to pay with his life.
On hearing news of Seneca’s retirement, Nero sent soldiers to Seneca’s house and ordered that Seneca kill himself in the middle of a dinner party.
Faced with the prospect of suicide, Seneca viewed death as but one thread in the fabric of life.
(Where) are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero’s cruelty? After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor.
Stoicism was a means of navigating those obstacles with grace and indifference.
No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.
Unlike Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus was not born into privilege. In fact, he was born into slavery. There is no record that he was ever given a name.
Instead, Epictetus is simply the Greek translation of “gained” or “acquired”.
Epictetus walked with a noticeable limp, but the origins of his limp are unclear.
One story suggests that his master, Epaphroditus, broke it while torturing him.
According to an understudy of Epictetus, he received the torture with Stoic constraint and composure.
He even warned his master that his leg would soon break, and when it did, he simply asked, “There, did I not tell you that my leg would break?”
After some time, he gained permission to study philosophy under another notable Stoic, Musonius Rufus.
From here, Epictetus would go on to teach Stoicism in Greece, but he never forgot where he came from.
His teachings centered on themes such as:
- Remembering what was inside and outside of our control.
- Letting actions speak louder than words.
- Building a strong character that had direction and purpose.
His poverty gave him valuable insight into the pitfalls of wealth and the value of working toward a goal.
His permanent disfigurement taught him how to be content with what he had and to become a man of sound moral character.
The good news is that, as photographers, we are unlikely to face many of the obstacles that Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus faced.
It is highly unlikely that we’ll have to face the prospect of outliving one of our children, let alone 8 of our children, as Marcus Aurelius did.
We will almost certainly be spared from exile, slavery or having our bones broken by a master.
But we will encounter obstacles, nonetheless.
Stoicism helps us withstand unfortunate events and become better people in the process.
With more resources to devote to what we can control, we lead more fulfilling, intentional, meaningful lives.
How do we begin to do this?
It starts with Perception, Action, and Will.
We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.
- Oscar Wilde
Perception is in the eye of the beholder. It is our unique, and sometimes flawed, interpretation of the world around us.
If a fellow photographer trashes your work, how do you respond?
Is your emotional response akin to receiving a cancer diagnosis?
If you destroy your $2000 camera in the ocean, do you blame the tripod or accept that you made a mistake and lick your wounds?
When your perception triggers an emotional response, you are surrendering control of your faculties.
You are, in effect, floating your mind on the stock market and leaving it to the whims of daily fluctuations.
One minute you feel a million bucks because someone has praised your photography.
The next you’re in the middle of an emotional recession because Instagram said your latest photo was only worth 3 likes.
You don’t have control over the stock market, much less over other people.
Why, then, should you leave control of your mind to others, to external forces? The one and only thing you do control?
Stoic philosophy demands that we judge external events as neither good nor bad.
Take your mind off the stock market and become indifferent to the whims of life.
When you practice virtue, you are not perturbed by opinion or misfortune.
You have complete freedom over your emotions and more energy to focus on the things you can control.
Good people will do what they find honourable to do, even if it requires hard work; they’ll do it even if it causes them injury; they’ll do it even if it will bring danger. Again, they won’t do what they find base, even if it brings wealth, pleasure, or power. Nothing will deter them from what is honourable, and nothing will lure them into what is base.
Stoicism is very much a practical philosophy. Stoic principles are only effective if you apply them to your daily life.
The Stoics emphasized a good work ethic. But the work, in this case, is not necessarily the modern-day notion of hard work.
A good work ethic, in the Stoic sense, is building an honorable character that is resilient to life.
The work is intentional, self-improvement centric, and cognizant of the fact that we will always encounter obstacles that need to be overcome.
For most of us, there is no getting around hard work. We may as well endure it with a smile on our face.
Intentional actions become habits, and habits build the foundations of a Stoic life. A life that has your welfare in mind, as well as the welfare of the human race.
Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.
Habits encompass our ways of operating on a daily basis. They shape who we become, for better or worse.
What habits can you implement that will set you on the path to becoming a better photographer?
Identify habits that are holding you back and replace them with constructive ones.
Want to find your photographic style? Take lots of photos over a long period of time and put yourself in situations where you feel happy, confident, and inspired.
Interested in opening your own gallery someday? Figure out the habits that will get you there, and then take action.
Do not simply float along on the current, happy to be taken wherever the river leads you.
A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.
Sometimes an external event will rock us to the core. That’s life, and it happens to everyone.
There is no shame in being knocked off center from time to time.
External events are not the end of the world. At least, not the end of our world.
When we visit a new location and fail to make a satisfactory image, we conclude that we suck at photography.
We berate ourselves for submerging the camera in seawater, instead of accepting that we had no control over the freak wave that toppled the tripod.
Stoicism does not dictate that you should be happy about your misfortunes. Rather, it requires that you make peace with them by practicing virtue.
Epictetus called this process of making peace Assent.
Assent is mindfulness on our judgements of external events.
Mindfulness holds our favorite negative judgments to account, questioning whether they are serving us or harming us.
When another photographer sets up in our composition, the immediate reaction is one of anger and disbelief.
How could they be so inconsiderate?
Regardless of how thoughtless this person appears to be, does your judgment help the situation?
You might feel good about yourself temporarily, but entitlement and superiority don’t make great photographs.
By calling ourselves out, we become mentally free and unencumbered.
Before we know it, we are packing up our tripods and moving to a new location. We are joyful because we understand that a new location brings new compositions and possibilities.
The Stoics have a term for this too — amor fati — or the joyful acceptance of fate.
In modern terms, it means making lemonade from lemons — with the understanding that the lemons will materialize for as long as you breathe oxygen.
The ancient Stoics never owned cameras, but their Stoic predispositions would have served them well.
You are not a photographer if you have never suffered criticism, been vulnerable, or encountered setbacks.
These external events are a part of life, a part of the non-discriminating nature of the universe. If encountered with virtue, you cease to view these events as obstacles and begin to see them as tools of self-improvement.
In Perception, we learned that our judgements are the root cause of many of our problems. By remaining in possession of our minds, we choose how to react to certain events and are the better for it. We don’t give the keys to our emotional kingdom on a silver platter to someone else.
In Action, we learned that intentional, focused hard work is the only true path to contentment. Habits guide intentional work, and intentional work carried out over a period of time is the foundation of a meaningful life and sound character.
In Will, we learned that life will throw up obstacles, particularly when we are striving to achieve something great. We must endure obstacles with indifference and an understanding that the only true, fatal obstacle is death itself.
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