The big picture. What good is Stoic philosophy to a travel photographer?

Above: It’s been a year of introspection for many of us (a tad darker for some than for others depending on your perspective).

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It was close to this time last year that news of the COVID virus began to get serious and my overseas assignments evaporated. Shortly after – as State borders closed and my prospects in Australia also began to dry up – the abundance of spare time I had saw me standing in a bookstore flicking through a few pages about Stoic philosophy.

Twelve months later, with the world promising to return to some semblance of normality, I remain its student – referring to Stoic teachings daily and recognising it as one of the most important personal discoveries I’ve ever made.

Now, I know Stoic philosophy doesn’t appear to have a lot to do with travel photography but I wanted to share with fellow photographers what a hugely valuable resource it has become to me in terms of the challenges I know we all face in this profession – the uncertainty of income, the changes in expectations, the pressure of delivering quality to shortened deadlines, and some of the people we have to put up with to earn a living.

At this point, let me rush to say I’m not about to give a sermon from the mount about the philosophy I’ve adopted – though I do want to share at least a little of the discovery, in case you too might be looking for “a few answers.”

So, here’s some bite-sized points to introduce you to it, and a few of the main reasons it continues to resonate with me:

No praying or worship here: I think it’s important to be aware that Stoic philosophy is not a religion; it doesn’t recognise or suggest the worship of any deity. Nor does it stem from a holy book like the Bible or the Koran. It’s simply an approach to life based on the thinking and recorded lessons of the Stoic philosophers about 2,000 years ago.

Stoic philosophy in a nutshell: Stoic philosophy is the collective wisdom of a succession of greek and roman scholars, philosophers and writers who lived during the rise, and collapse, of the Roman Empire. Over a period of about 300 years, these learned men studied man’s role on earth and contributed to a philosophy called Stoicism which has survived the Millenia by offering an approach to living that, to this day, continues to prove popular. Their thinking – and the answers they give to some of the deepest and most difficult questions we’re ever likely to ask ourselves – provides a framework of values and principles to help live a happier and more fulfilled life. In its simplest form, the philosophy comes down to being content, living a full life, and “doing the right thing” (which, as we all know, ain’t always that easy).

WHY IT WORKS FOR ME

Of course, timing and personal circumstance tend to determine whether you’re likely to be receptive to a higher learning but here are six main reasons Stoic philosophy continues to resonate with me:

It draws from knowledge and experience: As an agnostic who neither believes nor dis-believes in God but looks at the miracle of life and reasons there’s a higher power responsible which exists beyond my comprehension, I was always going to be more receptive to a philosophy that accepts there are some questions we just can’t answer but still draws on the knowledge and experience of learned men to offer a deeper sense of purpose.

It makes sense: Stoic philosophy operates in a world of logic and reason – a realm in which I’ve always felt comfortable. When a group of big-thinking Greek and Roman philosophers devote their lives, and the best part of 300 years, to searching for a way for man to live a better life, you can’t help but think they must have stumbled across something important in their quest. And, having done the work, they simply wanted to share it. All we really have to do to benefit from their wisdom is read what they had to say and, if it makes sense, practice the lessons they learned.

The Stoics believe there are fundamental rules we should live by – noble virtues to aspire to (wisdom, courage, justice and moderation), ways to respond – both as an individual and for the common good; guidelines to steer you in the right direction, even in the darkest of circumstances.

Designed for living: What I like about the Stoics over earlier Greek philosophers is that they concentrated their attention on practical ways to live a “better life.” They came up with a set of principles and practices that could be applied to day-to-day living, and they practiced the principles themselves (admittedly, with varying degrees of success). Again, this practical application to “the real world” of a deeply considered theory was always likely to appeal.

It provides perspective: By reading about the personal lives of several principals of Stoic philosophy, I’ve recognised that variations of my personal challenges In life have been going on for thousands of years and to millions of other people (ok, so maybe non of us has ripped our chest open like Cato on a matter of principle). As I read more about Stoicism, I came to better understand – for example – that the ebbs and flows of good and bad fortune are inevitable parts of the human condition, that bad things happen to all of us and that the best we can do is prepare for them; that there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by worrying about the things we can’t change; that there’s a “right way” to respond to most circumstances; that, even in the most challenging situations, you can only do your best.

Fundamental lessons like these now guide my life.

It has provided a personal “safety net”: Five years ago I suffered a bout of depression, largely because I was struck by several major setbacks at the same time and I was over-thinking my circumstance. I was in my late 50’s and I’d never had the experience. I knew of it, people around me had experienced it, but never – ever – did I think it would descend on me. While one of the réalisations that comes with having been through it is knowing you could return, Stoic philosophy has provided a “philosophical safety net” which I grow increasingly confident will prevent me from doing so. In some measure of what Stoicism has taught me, I’m now in the habit of spending the first few minutes of my waking day aligning myself with a sense of gratitude, and allocating the last few minutes before I go to sleep acknowledging my good fortune. And, when challenging circumstances begin to rise, I’m able to recognise my need to respond differently to how I have in the past.

Stoic principles run through all the great religions. In studying the principles of Stoic philosophy, I’ve come to better understand that many of its principles run through all the great religions. I’ve since read similar lessons reflected in Hindu, Islamic and Christian teachings. While my own pursuit is absent of a religion, Stoicism – by way of contrast – has revealed the importance of having a spiritual dimension in my life which, as it turns out, aligns with aspects of Taoist and Buddhist teachings.

Self-awareness: While it was Socrates who proclaimed the importance of knowing yourself, Stoic philosophy has started to teach me how to do it and – just as importantly – how to be a friend to myself. It wasn’t until I embraced Stoicism, that I realised I never really had a clue.

It has instilled in me a commitment towards the greater good”: As I align myself more with Stoic values, I recognise I have a role to play – not just to myself, but as part of my community. In turn, I’m more conscious of making a positive contribution to the lives of the people around me, and I’m seeking to become more compassionate and understanding (not that I’m completely on top of it yet, I’d rush to add but, most days, I’m looking for the opportunity to do better).

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Warning- Careful where you start: If I’d only bought Marcus Aurelius’s book – Meditations (which is the go-to reference for most people wanting to consider all things Stoic), I’d have given Stoicism the flick and be non-the-wiser. A big thinker and emperor of Rome Marcus undoubtedly was, but his book/diary/journal was never written to be read by others. It presents more as a collection of personal aphorisms which – certainly initially – proved way too disjointed and convoluted for this student with the attention-span of a rummaging bower bird. But, on the way out, I did a Quick internet search on Stoic philosophy and stumbled across a Yutube post by American author Ryan Holiday who has written several books on Stoic philosophy. He presented their teaching as “ancient wisdom for everyday life,” which resonated with me. The guy’s prolific. He posts about the subject daily (I’m on his mailing list) and he frequently uploads to Yutube (here’s one of his clips:

As you can see, his language and references are contemporary and relatable, and he’s seriously well-read on the subject (from what I gathered, he’s been making a living from studying and sharing Stoic philosophy for the best part of the past decade)

Anyway, in his company (and now through five of his books and dozens of other books on Stoicism), I’ve studied the works of many of the Stoic heavyweights including Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, Cato, and Cicero – I’ve even returned to Marcus Aurelius – each of whom continues to profoundly change my view of the world and my place in it.
And, in the process, I’ve also enjoyed adding context to their philosophies by reading about other prominent philosophers of the time including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes and Epicurus.

Of the books I’ve now read on Stoicism, the one I’d recommend most highly beyond Ryan’s books, is Ward Farnworth’s, The Practical Stoic. I think its particularly well written and it presents a deeper insight into Stoic philosophy by compiling direct quotes and important references from many leading Stoic philosophers under simple themes such as learning, emotion and adversity. He also argues convincingly the case against several major criticisms of Stoicism.

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So, there you have it. Probably a bit more than I intended to write (and a fraction of what I would like to have written) but, still, it’s a taste of Stoic philosophy and an insight into how it has begun to re-shape my world.

David’s personal blog

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