Hormetism is a practical set of tools that can help you lose weight, get fit, or even improve your eyesight. But thinking of it as just “as set of tools” actually undervalues the benefits of Hormetism, because it leaves out the greatest benefit: a path to freedom from stress and a means of increasing your physical, mental and spiritual strength. Hormetism is at once a broad perspective on living and a specific set of techniques that can free you from distractions and foster your ability to focus on the important things in life–even the most challenging ones–with greater engagement and joy, and with less distraction from negative emotions such as anger, fear, worry, and the other negative manifestations of stress. Hormetism is not just a set of tools, it is an overarching philosophy of life.
But did Hormetism come out of nowhere, or are there historical precedents? Within the history of both Western and Eastern philosophies, there is one that comes closest: Stoicism, one of the earliest and noblest of the philosophies to arise from the legacy of Socrates, over two millenia ago.
Epictetus was a prominent Stoic philosopher who lived from 55-135 AD in Greece, and later in Rome. He was born a slave, but he professed a philosophy that was later adopted by the Roman statesmen Seneca and Cicero, and was embraced by Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the greatest of all Roman emperors. If the philosophy of Stoicism could work equally for a slave and an emperor, helping both of them overcome very different sets of challenges, perhaps it bears further investigation! It is also not often recognized how strong an influence Stoicism had on the development of Christianity as an ethical system, and upon many individual statesmen and military leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the American republic. James Stockdale credits having read Epictetus’ Enchiridion, in a philosophy course at Stanford, for his ability to endure and prevail during years of torture as a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam. And yet Stoicism today is little known, and frequently mischaracterized as an attitude of steely resignation to a cold fate. The truth is quite otherwise.
Philosophy is often thought of as a type of speculative thought or dry academic analysis that has little to do with the challenges of real life. But this was not the case in ancient Greece and Rome; nor, for that matter the Far East. Stoicism in the West, like Buddhism in the East, was a philosophy that sought not only to explain the nature of the physical world and our knowledge of it; but also to provide guidance on how to live the best life, and how to confront the challenges we all face in living. Much of the role that philosophy used to play in helping guide our actions was increasingly ceded to religion, and more recently to secular substitutes for religion. Stoicism was one of several “schools” of philosophy that played a guiding role in the lives of Greeks and Romans, from the illustrious to the ordinary. The question is: is this ancient philosophy of Stoicism of any use to us today?
Irvine’s account of Stoicism. One excellent recent “re-animation” of Stoicism for the modern world is presented in “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy“, by the contemporary philosopher William Irvine. (For those interested but short on time, start with Irvine’s recent three-part article in Boing Boing: Twenty-First Century Stoic). His book is not a mere history of Stoicism. Irvine does a good job of explaining the major ideas of the leading Stoics in their historical context, but he goes beyond that, to provide persuasive arguments in favor of Stoicism as a most practical of philosophies for contemporary readers. In Stoicism, Irvine has found the West’s answer to Buddhism, a philosophy of enlightened happiness through a studied detachment. But this is an analytical sort of detachment, not a non-cognitive or mystical pose, and for this reason Stoicism is more compatible with rational philosophical inquiry than is Buddhism. At the same time, Irvine positions Stoicism as a set of practical therapeutic tools which in some ways anticipate contemporary cognitive behavioral therapy. But Stoicism is not just a set of tools, it goes beyond methodology in providing a coherent worldview and philosophy of living.
Irvine is quick to point out that Stoicism is often misunderstood as a philosophy of emotional coldness, restraint and asceticism, based on the connotation associated with the contemporary meaning of “small-s” stoicism. He positions the Stoics as midway between the ascetic Cynics of old, and the hedonistic Cyrenaics. In short, the Stoics embraced life’s pleasures but counseled its adherents on how to avoid craving or clinging to pleasures, how to lessen the fear of adversity or loss, and how to overcome anger and the sting of insults through a series of practical techniques. This ability to master the “passions” was what the Stoics called “tranquility”.
Tranquility. The Greek Stoics emphasized virtue, the pursuit of excellence. Irvine does not disparage this focus on virtue, but he favors the Roman Stoics, who emphasized tranquility (freedom from distracting emotions) both as an end and also as a means that would make it easier to pursue virtue. “Tranquility” is another word, which like “stoic” has in modern times taken on a different meaning, and sometimes connotes a state of total quietude or emotionless inertia. However, as Irvine notes, “Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.” (AGTTGL, p. 39). By adding the pursuit of tranquility to Greek Stoicism, the later Stoics. such as Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, made Stoicism more attractive to the Romans, who were less motivated than were the Greeks by the ideal of pure reason. Irvine notes that Stoicism was one of many schools that had to “compete” for students, and the doctrine of tranquility gave it a distinction over rival schools like the Epicureans or the Cynics. By both allowing themselves the pleasures of the good life, but at the same time being prepared to give up these pleasures, the Stoics established independence from their cravings. The ascetic Cynics were vulnerable to craving good things if they did not avoid them, while the Epicureans and Cyrenaics, who elevated pleasure as the highest good, risked becoming too attached to good things. Only the Stoics demonstrated the ability to “take or leave” good things. And whereas the Epicureans advised their followers to withdraw from the world, Stoics, like Musonius Rufus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, advocated meeting head on the challenges of life, and urged followers to become engaged in public life. As a result, many Stoics became prominent as statesmen or important advisors to statesmen.
Meditation. What were the techniques of the Stoics? Irvine believes that the most effective of these techniques to master the emotions and achieve tranquility were their meditative techniques. One such technique is characterized by Irvine as “negative visualization”: imaging the worst–for example, contemplating the loss of one’s friends, loved ones, and dearest possessions–in order to foster a greater appreciation for what one already has. Irvine notes that the Stoics observed how people naturally tend to take for granted what they already have, and have a strong tendency to continually seek new possessions or other sources of happiness. He calls this “hedonic adapation” and discusses the value of negative visualization as an antidote to it. If you are skeptical about the power of negative visualization to instantly generate gratitude and happiness click on this hyperlink to watch a short video.
Negative visualization is useful not just for resisting hedonic adaptation; it is also a useful way to clarify your goals and priorities, as Tim Ferriss has so nicely described in this short video clip:
Training through voluntary discomfort. These “thinking” techniques can certainly be useful. However, I find the best ideas of the Stoics to be those which urge changes in how one actually lives, not just in how one thinks. Irvine deals with one of the more powerful of these ideas in Chapter 7, on “Self-Denial: On Dealing with the Dark Side of Pleasure”. The Stoics did not shun worldly goods and pleasures or embrace discomfort out of masochism or to pursue spiritual atonement or purification, as was the case with the Greek Cynics or, in more modern times, by various religious ascetics and sects. Rather, the Stoics advocated occasional, deliberate use of temporary poverty, voluntary discomfort, and refraining from pleasures in order to quiet their appetites for material goods and sensual pleasures, increase the sense of appreciation for what they already had, and — most importantly — to “immunize” themselves against future misfortune and develop the courage to take on difficult challenges. In The Discourses, a set of lectures transcribed by his student Arrian, Epictetus advocates the intentional use of hardship as a form of active training to build up one’s strength, and he acknowledges that this is a gradual process:
But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what is not appropriate to him. (TD, Book One, Ch. 2, p. 10)
One criticism that has been lodged against the use of voluntary discomfort or hardship is that it is just too hard and too unpleasant for the average person. Some people may be born with a higher threshold for pain, but for most of us this type of self-inflicted discomfort does not look very appealing or fruitful. To this, Irvine has a good answer:
What the Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves. This self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and this in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life. (AGTTGL, p. 116-7)
In just this way, these methods of voluntary discomfort, developed by the Stoics to achieve tranquility, resemble the methods of deconditioning and strengthening advocated by Hormetism. Both involve a willingness to tolerate short term stress and discomfort, and a recognition that this process will be rewarded by longer term transformative adaptations that will result in increased self-control and success in life. Going beyond mere meditation or “cognitive” techniques, both Stoicism and Hormetism advocate real behavioral measures, such as controlled exposure to physical stresses or psychological cues which trigger stress responses, in order to become stronger and better tolerate those stresses. Many of the other posts on this blog deal with specific examples of such “voluntary discomfort” or “self denial” techniques, including:
I believe that the benefits of the Stoic techniques of negative visualization and voluntary discomfort can probably be explained in terms of contemporary psychology and physiology — sciences of which the ancients had little inkling. The evidence and arguments for these explanations are laid out in my posts on:
- Psychology: The opponent-process theory of emotion
- Physiology: The receptor control theory of pleasure regulation
In the final chapter of his book, Irvine notes that the strength and tranquility gained by practicing Stoicism creates a natural desire to “be tested” — to rise to the occasion in overcoming hardships and challenges. Again, in The Discourses, Epictetus said:
You should look to the faculties that you have, and say as you behold them, ‘Bring on me now, O Zeus, whatever difficulties you will, for I have the means and the resources granted to me by yourself to bring honour to myself through whatever may come to pass.’ (TD, Book One, Ch. 6, p. 18).
Furthermore, it is by how we handle the challenges in life that our character is revealed and built:
Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that god, like a wrestling-master, has matched you with a rough young man. (TD, Book One, Ch. 24, p. 53).
The result of this strengthening of character through exposure to adversity is a true freedom that comes in being slave to no person or desire:
Who after this has any power over me? Philip or Alexander, or Perdiccas, or the persian king? How should they have it? For he that can be subjected by man must, long before, let himself be subjected by things. He, therefore, whom neither pleasure nor pain, nor fame nor riches, can get the better of, and who is able, whenever he thinks fit, to spit his whole body into his tormentor’s face and depart from life, whose slave can he ever be? To whom is he subject? (TD, III, Ch. 24, 212)
A lot of the influence of Stoicism has been in helping humans overcome extreme adversity, such as war, imprisonment and the prospect of impending death. In many ways, this aspect of Stoicism builds upon the example of Socrates, who calmly faced his death sentence rather than run away from his firmly held principles, and that example and philosophy has echoes through history in great examples of defiance and heroism in overcoming great difficulties and resisting evil.
The Sphere of Choice. One of the central ideas of the Stoics was the distinction, best propounded by Epictetus, between what we can control (what he called “the sphere of choice” or “internals”) and what we cannot (“externals”). Epictetus believed we should focus solely on the former, and that tranquility comes foremost from realizing that we cannot control or change certain things — particularly the past, much of the natural world, the actions and thoughts of other people, and even many things about ourselves. Other Stoics, principally Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, also urged developing a sense of humor and lightness when events turn against us or people behave badly towards us; allowing these externals to bother us is simply irrational and a waste of our time and concern. Epictetus went further: Above all else, he stressed that our character, our values, and our opinions lie within the realm of “internals” or the changeable, and should be the primary focus of our endeavors. To Epictetus, externals should not be our concern. At best, externals provide the “materials” for developing our character and becoming a better person. This view is clearly set forth in The Discourses, in Chapter 29, “On Steadfastness”:
The essence of the good is a certain disposition of our choice, and essence of evil likewise. What are externals, then? Materials for the faculty of choice, in the management of which it will attain its own good or evil…So, when a tyrant threatens and sends for me, I say, What does he threaten? If he says, ‘I will chain you’, I say, ‘He is threatening my hands and my feet’…Who is there left for me to fear? Of things in my own power? Of these no one is the master. (TD, Book I, Ch. 29, pp. 65-66)
It is understandable that Epictetus, as a slave, was in a unique position to make the case that even a slave, with little control over externals, could still preserve his internal freedom and moral integrity. And the material of externals did not have to necessarily involve circumstances as dire as confinement by tyrants. For one thing, the Stoics felt that we have obligations towards others and civic duties which are frequently inconvenient or contrary to self-interest, but fulfilling these commitments gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our character, regardless of the “external” benefits or burdens to ourselves. Again, the focus is on choice over what we can control within ourselves, not on the outcome. In this sense, the Stoic philosophy is almost the polar opposite of modern day Utilitarianism, the ethical viewpoint of Bentham and Mill, which measures the goodness of an action by its consequences to the happiness (read “pleasure”) of others. The Stoics, by contrast, ignore or almost oppose themselves to consideration of consequences, valuing the worth of an action by what it says about the character or moral worthiness of the actor.
A compelling personification of the Stoic ideal is portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s novel, “A Man in Full”. One of the main characters, Conrad Hensley, is a uneducated warehouse worker of little accomplishment. He happens upon a string of bad luck which lands him in prison after he stealthily tries to retrieve his impounded car after it is unfairly towed. While in prison, and once he thinks things can get no worse, Conrad chances upon the writings of Epictetus, and discovers within himself a power he never realized. He uses his new-found confidence to overcome confrontations with intimidating characters in prison. Later, when working as a caretaker for an elderly couple, he learns of their financial extortion by a predatory thug when he overhears the thug confronting them and demanding payment from their meager savings. Summoning the power of Zeus to test him, Conrad draws upon the intimating tactics he learned from prison toughs to scare off the intruding thug, earning the gratitude of the exploited elderly couple. Conrad’s story is just one of several in “A Man in Full”, in which characters who are failing by the measure of “externals” learn through being tested to turn their “sphere of choice” to the good to prove their moral worth.
Hormetism vs. Stoicism. Hormetism and Stoicism both share an appreciation of the value of adversity in building character and in immunizing oneself against the distracting pull of appetites and emotions, leading to an increase in self-control and the freedom to pursue the good.
Where Hormetism and Stocism part ways, I think, is in their view of externals. The Stoic focus on “internals” and a circumscribed “sphere of choice” looks to me like an abdication of responsibility and commitment to making positive changes in the world — including the changes to society and to oneself. While, on the face of it, Stoics seems to embrace social and personal responsibility, on looking closer, they see engagement with externals only as a way to test oneself or prove ones character. The actual outcome seems not to matter very much.
This comes through even in Irvine’s contemporary reworking of Stoicism. Irvine points out that in most of our efforts, we at best have partial control over the outcome:
When a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted. (AGTTGL, p. 95)
Irvine argues that a focus on internal, rather than external goals, is particularly beneficial in difficult careers such as becoming a novelist, where one faces rejection more often than success:
How can the aspiring novelist reduce the psychological cost of rejection and thereby increase her chance of success? By internalizing her goals with respect to novel writing. She should have as her goal not something external over which she has little control, such as getting her novel published, but something internal over which she has considerable control, such as how hard she works on the manuscript or how many times she submits it in a given period of time. (AGTTGL, p. 98)
Irvine summarizes his viewpoint on the Stoics outlook on the world around them with these words:
…Cato and the other Stoics found a way to retain their tranquility despite their involvement with the world around them: They internalized their goals. Their goal was not to change the world, but to do their best to bring about certain changes. Even if their efforts proved to be ineffectual, they could nevertheless rest easy knowing that they had accomplished their goal. They had done what they could do. (ATTGL, p. 100)
This is perhaps the least convincing point in all of Irvine’s book. I just cannot imagine that an emperor like Marcus Aurelius or a statesman like Seneca — much less the coach of a major league football team — would be satisfied and “rest easy” knowing that he had “done what he could do”. The view that a sincere effort is good enough, and that the actual outcome does not matter, is not a recipe for success. Some external goals are worth going all out to achieve, and some are so important that the fate of a life, an organization, or a country, depend upon them. George Washington was influenced by the Stoics. But he was above all else committed to the success of his newly formed country. In the harsh winter of 1776, Washington had been forced out of Manhattan by Cornwallis, and was camped outside Trenton with a shrinking group of hungry and demoralized troops. When he encamped beside the Delaware River, contemplating his next move, and facing imminent defeat, I doubt he contented himself by thinking that all was well because he had been trying really hard. On the contrary, his desparate circumstances conjured up within him the bold maneuver and carefully rehearsed plan of crossing the Delaware and launching a surprise Christmas Day attack on the Hessians, who were resting outside of Trenton. The forcefulness of this attack, and the Hessians defeat, completely reversed the momentum of the Revolutionary War.
Hormetism takes seriously the value of real success, not just moral success, in confronting and overcoming external obstacles. These obstacles can be physical, social or psychological. While many of these obstacles are not within our control, at least initially, we can gain leverage by systematically building strength, and by repeated efforts at overcoming. What Irvine and the earlier Stoics seem to overlook is the possibility of increasing the sphere of choice and control over the world of others and the self. We can change the world, others and ourselves, although it sometimes takes a while and requires patience. But it is frequently worth it. We don’t have to accept things the way they are. Particularly if we understand our own capability to gradually and systematically improve our odds of eventually overcome barriers to change. By contrast, the Stoicism of Irvine begins to shade into the resignation of Buddhism, to the extent that it avoids making a commitment and taking responsibility for the outcome, and not just making a good faith effort, to improve ourselves and the lives of others.
What we can take from Stoics is the lesson that we should not become frustrated with ourselves if we don’t at first succeed in these efforts, and in fact that we can learn from the early failures to improve our chances of success on the next try. Hormetism recognizes that we adapt and improve as a result of repeated efforts to overcome adversity. Maybe this is because modern man, unlike the Greeks, tends to regard character, human capacity, and fate not as something fixed, but as something that can be changed. This is based in part on what we have learned from the sciences of physiology and psychology regarding the capacity for human change, findings that were not available to the Stoics.
To summarize: A better motto than “Do what you can do, and be happy with your personal effort” (my paraphrase of Irvine’s neo-Stoicism) is “If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again” (from Thomas H. Palmer’s Teacher’s Manual, 1840). What we have learned from our study of diet, fitness, rehabilitation, and psychology is that our capacity for self improvement and overcoming adversity is not fixed, but can be increased through training and selective, progressive exposure to stress. In Hormetism, we can generalize this to include improvements to our character and perseverance. Adversity strengthens not just our particular abilities, but our very soul.
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