From Assholes to Stoicism

Assholes to Stoicism

NOTE:  This entry was originally posted on a different site on February 10, 2017 and has been slightly edited prior to re-posting here.

I just finished reading Nolan Dalla’s blog post, 55 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Me, written upon the occasion of his 55th birthday. As expected, it’s well written and entertaining.

So here is one thing you may not know about KKing David:  In college, I majored in philosophy.

Every once in awhile, I’ll look to one group of philosophers or another for guidance about life’s mysteries. Recently, the Stoics have been the object of some attention, and for good reason. Ancient Stoic philosophy is perfect for poker players. Let me explain…

But first, please bear with me as I digress to explain how Stoicism got onto my radar. A couple months ago, my daughters gave me as a gift a NY Times bestseller they found in the philosophy section of our local independent booksellerAssholes: A Theory, by Aaron James. The author is a philosophy professor at UC Irvine. My daughters thought I would enjoyed reading it, and indeed I did. Early in 2016 James published a sequel of sorts… Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump. The title makes sense to me, but I haven’t read it.

In the latter section of the original book, James offers suggestions to the reader on how to deal with assholes.  One of the consequences of assholery is that we, as the victims, often find ourselves reacting with far stronger emotions than are warranted by the actual harm done. For example, when some asshole parks in a handicapped space and then sprints inside the store, there is no actual physical harm or property damage to a non-handicapped person to match the rage that he or she feels.

James cites the Stoic philosophers, particularly Epictetus, who developed Stoicism as a system for living a virtuous life to separate their emotional reaction to events beyond their control from the events themselves. Once you become consumed with emotional suffering in reaction to the asshole’s assholery, the asshole wins.

“According to a Stoic principle, one must always accept what is given. One can hope for good things and work toward them, but one should not strive for what is not within one’s power. As the wise Epictetus explains, ‘If [a way things appear] concerns anything outside of your control, train yourself not to worry about it.'”

Among things not within one’s control Epictetus explicitly includes the recognition or lack of recognition by others. He writes:  ‘It is only after you have … learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible … Such things as … how we are regarded by others … are externals and therefore not our concern.”

It’s good advice. The key is that you have to train yourself. Inner tranquility doesn’t suddenly happen when an elementary school teacher instructs a bullied kid to say “stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”

What does Stoicism have to do with poker? When it comes to emotional control (“tiltlessness” in the words of Tommy Angelo), everything!

Consider here a few quotes from Epictetus (who lived from approx. 60 -138 C.E., and also Marcus Aurelius, a practitioner of Stoicism who was the Roman Emperor from 161 – 180 C.E. Imagine that instead of writing nearly two thousands years ago, they were coaching contemporary poker players…

Epictetus quotes:

  • “What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.”
  • “Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.”
  • “For what does reason purport to do? ‘Establish what is true, eliminate what is false and suspend judgement in doubtful cases.’
  • “When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.”
  • For tournament players:  “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.”
  • “‘But we must stick with a decision.’ For heaven’s sake, man, that rule only
    applies to sound decisions.”
  • “You’re subject to sorrow, fear, jealousy, anger and inconsistency. That’s the real reason you should admit that you are not wise.”

Marcus Aurelius quotes:

  • “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.”
  • “From Sextus [I learned] to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”
  • “Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others … for you lose the opportunity of doing something else when you have such thoughts as these.”
  • “’I am unhappy, because this has happened to me.’ Not so: say, ‘I am happy, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.’”

The recurring themes are that life (and poker) is full of indignities (and assholes), making it mandatory that we train ourselves not to suffer needlessly (tilt). We must use our reasoning abilities to make better decisions (fold/call/raise), while being prepared to accept that negative outcomes (bad beats) are going to happen according to nature. And life is short, so don’t be full of shit.

Easy, right?


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