Bringing Dead Philosophers to Life (Stoicism)

“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well” (8). This quote from Epictetus highlights stoicism’s core notion that people ought to succumb to reality by setting their desire in line with the way the external world is. When first reading Epictetus, I resonated with stoicism’s overall ideology but to a certain extent, since it devalues human emotions and love for possessions. However, after giving it more reads and reflecting on my previous experience as a retail NFT trader, I agreed with nearly all of Epictetus’ views, even those I previously considered flawed. Detaching emotions while setting a desire to align with real-life helps one become more objective and avoid irrational behaviors.

Epictetus emphasizes not overspending emotions on things out of our control but focuses on self-emotion and judgment improvement for handling the matters within our reach. He also values swiftness in decision-making: “you must not undertake them by acting moderately, but must let some things go completely and postpone others for the time being” (1).

Despite not being attached to emotions while focusing on self-consciousness is a good lesson, I consider Epictetus might have gone too far on emotional detachment as he believes one should give up all feelings if necessary. Furthermore, he states that to achieve such a state of tranquility, one needs to make everything except themselves secondary, devaluing emotion, friendships, and family, which I found a bit problematic.

The following two lessons are examples that reflect this issue:  "if you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies, you will not be upset" (3) and "the will of nature from the things in which we do not differ from each other" (26). In these two sections, he ignores emotion and wants people to treat things equally. The example he applied here is absurd and completely neglects societal morality. Based on common sense and moral standards, one should always value their family more than others. Contradictoraliy, Epictetus disagrees and states viewing everyone equally will make one more objective when their relative is diseased. His extremeness in eliminating emotional involvement seems to portray humans as no different from animals, bringing human civilizations back to the stone age. Such statements can easily make one mistakenly perceive Epictetus as a selfish person and devalue his advice.

However, we ought to realize that the act of applying Epictetus’ lesson is something that belongs to our “own doings” (1). We have the choice of not generalizing his philosophy to all extent but applying it whenever we find it suitable. One will reap wonderful rewards if one understands this principle and looks at Epictetus through a more objective lens.

I have been trading cryptocurrency since June 2020. Later, in August 2021, I started trading NFTs, Digital arts, or JPEGs with cryptocurrency as purchasing medium. The cryptocurrency market is volatile. NFTs are exposed to much higher volatility levels due to their price denominating in cryptocurrency units. Many NFTs can rise from a pennyworth to as expensive as a car within a week and gradually fall back to a pennyworth over months.

I had many successes throughout my trading career but also experienced numerous boom-and-bust. Some of the successes I made were selling JPEGs at a peak price when they received tremendous volumes, while the loss often happened when I held a JPEG for too long, and it gradually trended toward zero.

One trade stands out to me the most and will always be a lesson I tell my trader friends. One week I bought a JPEG called Moonbird, and four days later, its price appreciated over $100,000. Earning $100,000 in four days exceeds most Professor's annual salaries, which was crazy for a college junior like me. At the time, I felt I owned the entire world, with an unfathomable amount of joy surging all over my veins. A sense of euphoria made me feel delusional as if this JPEG file had become a part of me and I would never want to sell it. I began telling myself that this is my digital identity, it belongs to me because it brought me luck and joy, and it will be trading at a higher price later. As a result, when the item hovered at a ridiculous price in a super liquid market, I chose not to sell it because I felt emotionally attached to this picture and viewed it as something of my own. Later, after the euphoria in the market ended, the price dropped dramatically along with the macro environment. Now, the picture is trading at a low price range with over 85% retracement from its peak price.

Many might send comforting words to me that the money that does not belong to you will never belong to you, or some might say there is nothing I can change about it since everyone is a genius when making decisions in hindsight. However, I believe I have obscured my trading principles, and such confusion would have been avoided if I had adopted Epictetus’ philosophies.

Firstly, Epictetus stated, “Do not be joyful about any superiority that is not your own” (6). This is the first redline I crossed. I have deeply emotionally attached to my possession, a mere JPEG file, and obscured it as something of my own. During the price peak, with the amount of euphoric sentiment, I chose to convince myself that this JPEG belonged to a part of me, as if I had sold the picture, all my achievements would have been gone. Such emotional attachment confused me on the initiative of entering the NFT market since I was here to make profits instead of falling in love with a JPEG to satisfy my ego. Through this lens, Epictetus’ provocative emotional elimination starts making sense to me, "if you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being" (3). The child or wife here should be seen as an analogy for things we are deeply emotionally attached to. Often, under the intense euphoria driven by emotions, one’s subjective sentimental comfort can prevent one from making objective decisions and forgoing initiatives. In my case, I chose to dive into the short-lived euphoria and forgo my initial intent of making profits. I would argue euphoria are always short-lived and full of uncertainty on continuity because it is something not our own and we can not control. Instead, we can influence our decisions and consciousness in many cases. If emotions can sometimes obscure our decision makings, it would not be unreasonable to eliminate them, as Epictetus suggests.

In addition, stoicism’s core belief sets desires to align with the external world. In my case, I was expecting the value of Moonbirds to go up further when it was already trading at a ridiculous price. I was trying to manipulate the market in my mind and wait for the market to align with my prediction, which again is the exact opposite of Epictetus’ philosophy. The financial market is something Epictetus will claim as not our own since it is a composition of other people’s behavior which we have no control over. One should never expect something out of one’s control to align with their internal thoughts. Such behavior is no different than gambling, betting on certain miracles at the cost of one’s time values, and financial assets.

Epictetus’ lessons will be the principles I follow in the future as a trader. None of my successful trades are made without my choice of eliminating emotions. Detaching emotions from possessions is essential for discerning one’s initial intent from the colorful short-lived euphoria. Setting a desire to align with real-life helps one become more objective and avoid irrational behaviors.

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