The Root of the Stoic Philosophy: Opportunity Cost

This article was originally published on Medium. 

The potential in the Stoic philosophy is difficult to overstate. Not only is it philosophy in the sense of thinking out subtle thoughts and limited to the theoretical, but even more importantly, it is an impetus people to change for the better, to use their time efficiently and to become their best version of themselves. Stoics frequently cite Henry D. Thoreau to emphasize their vision of philosophy:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

The opinion that philosophy should play a role in changing our views and behavior would seem to be widespread, in the sense that one considers oneself rational and is willing to change those views and behaviors if they are shown to be wrong or wasteful or damaging. Even holding that opinion, however, does not seem to make many people do so even if they might think they should. Studies conducted by Eric Schwitzgebel between 2009 and 2015 consistently found, with a wide variety of measures, that ethics professors do not behave any morally better than comparison groups of other professors. They hypothesized that the reason may be that “ philosophical moral reflection has little to no influence on people’s moral behavior.”

Given that it’s so difficult to get people to change their behavior by ideas, then, what is it that makes the Stoic philosophy work for so many people, most notably with Tim Ferriss, the author, entrepreneur and angel investor, who by the New Yorker has been termed this generation’s self-help guru. A quick answer is that it focuses on the practical, like citing Marcus Aurelius’ advicethat one should “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” The Stoics are knowledgeable of the fact that an excess of theorizing and planning often end up with nothing coming out of it, and that humans have a tendency to make excuses to avoid discomfort and of doing things they know they should — or need to — do even though they don’t want to.

But how come the Stoics, of all people, are grasping this? What realization have they come to, to see how important it is to make the most out of one’s life? The answer is opportunity cost. Many might be puzzled by this suggestion as opportunity cost in economics have to do with trade, but opportunity cost also gives us an insight into the significance of our lives and how we spend our time in general. As opportunity cost is represented by “the benefits an individual, investor or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another,” one can see that these alternatives could be seen not only in respect to trading goods and services, but all kinds of opportunities. The Foundation of Freedom Foundation illustrated this aspect of the concept opportunity cost exceptionally well in their video “The Hidden Cost of a Netflix Binge”. They use the example that out of all the time spent on a Netflix binge — each binge of which can last hours and may with habit stack up to last tens or hundreds of hours over time — could potentially be used better on other things. Like learning a new language or craft, taking up a new hobby, studying something interesting, working to perfect one’s grades by getting unfinished assignments done and studying for tests, etc. There are a lot of options, and only each individual can know what oneself consider the most important use of one’s time. Some might be reluctant to actually spend their time efficiently even though they know they should, and others may simply be misguided and think something is good use of their time which is really not, but actually taking the time to contemplate over this concept is what we should all stop and consider at times. It’s what we mean when we ask “What is the meaning of life?” If we’re so lucky as to get around 100 years of time living in this world — one of the few planets to have been able to develop life, not to mention to the degree of intelligence of humans — at the cutting-edge point of the universe’s 13.8 billion-year-long history, how are we best to use the opportunities we have before us? The Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca gives us some wise words to contemplate in answering this question:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.

Here we have some keywords in what makes the Stoic philosophy so powerful. At times we can feel preoccupied with something or stressed with getting something done, but if we make the time for it and put in the effort, it can turn out that it wasn’t such a big deal as one would expect. For instance, can one be discouraged from learning something new by how complex and difficult it may seem, but as Seneca says, “it’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture, but that we dare not venture that things are difficult.” The author Tom Woods, on the other hand, managed to write the first book on the 2008 financial crisis — Meltdown (almost 200 pages) — and get it out within a month, and has by now published 12 books and plenty more e-books. This serves as a case in point of the phenomena of Parkinson’s law, which claims that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” To illustrate this point, if two groups were given the same assignment, but one was given a deadline of two weeks later and the other only one week later, those in the latter group would have to concentrate their work sessions a lot more in that one week, while the former could disseminate it a bit more freely over the two weeks. What Parkinson’s law can add to the Stoic message is the illustration that one can be a lot more efficient than one thinks, if only one tries to continually push and challenge oneself with new projects on strict deadlines.

Life is precious, and not something to be taken for granted. The significance of all the opportunities we have every day, the things we have access to, the people we’re acquainted with, can seem blurred sometimes as one doesn’t think so much about happens every day in comparison to when something unusual happens, but it still matters. There are sure a lot of things to celebrate this Thanksgiving, but that thankfulness shouldn’t be limited only to one particular day of the year. One should always keep in mind the great opportunities we have every day, and consider the opportunity cost of our actions so as to make the most out of it. And one must know one’s mission, for “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” To remember and keep hold of the vital Stoic message of Seneca when one walks astray by distractions and procrastination, one should at time recite the mantra:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.

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