A sailing merchant who was shipwrecked and read some of Plato’s works, a slave who was set free due to his enormous talents and intellect, a playwright and advisor to the emperor of Rome and the last good Caesar. What do these things have in common, you ask? Well, they were all stoics.
The sailing merchant who was shipwrecked, was a man called Zeno of Citium. After being shipwrecked, he found himself wandering the streets of ancient Athens and wandered into a library. Here, he read some of Plato’s works and became enamoured with Socrates. He reportedly asked the shopkeeper where to find ‘such a man, a philosopher’. And the shopkeep pointed him towards a philosopher of the cynic school. Zeno became a student of this cynic, but was eventually disappointed and moved on to form his own school of philosophy, which congregated underneath one of Athens’ Stoas. This is where the school derives its name from. Alas, we know very little about the early stoics at this point. We only know of a few letters and pamphlets Zeno left, who was an influential figure having founded the school. We are therefore dependent on the works of those we call the later Stoics.
The slave that was set free? His name was Epictetus, which roughly translates to ‘acquired’. He dedicated his life to stoic philosophy, as did the playwright and advisor to the Roman emperor (Seneca the Younger), and the last good Caesar (Marcus Aurelius). The stoics would grow out to be the dominant school of philosophy in Rome, leaving far behind them the Cynics and the Epicureans. So what made their philosophy so appealing?
Introducing, the stoics
One of the main reasons that made stoic philosophy so appealing, is undoubtedly that they put a lot of effort into self-help. This makes them a great subject for the “The Life Worth Living” series. Like Buddha, the Stoics recognized that one of the certainties in life, is suffering. As is understandable. they then dedicated a lot of time in trying to alleviate this suffering. Their answer was a thorough approach to virtue ethics, in an attempt to not only build moral character but also to build a resilient one. They have developed a lot of outlooks on life in general, and some exercises that, when applied to life for a long time, can make a person more resilient, which then allows them to focus more on attaining virtue.
Many will know the stoics in one of two ways, before reading about them in more detail, both of which I will endeavour to nuance a bit throughout this article. The first way in which people may know them is as ‘unfeeling’. This originates from the use of the term “being stoic about something”, which is often used to refer to some sort of apathetic or indifferent behaviour towards something. And, as we will see, with terms like indifferents and apatheia at the centre of the philosophy, there is plenty of grounds for that. It nonetheless paints a one-sided picture. The stoics were actually people who were focused on the good things life such as friendship, wisdom and morality. They just tried to take the bad things that inevitably come with life in stride. The same criticism applies to the second way in which people with a limited understanding of stoicism will view the stoics; as negative people, focused mainly on death and suffering.
Because the Stoics recognised that pain, suffering and death are inevitable to the human condition, they reflected on what the best ways were to alleviate these. They came up with four different ways to effectively do this, which I will explain in relative detail.
- The dichotomy of control
- Premeditatio Malorum
Though this word resembles our modern-day “apathy”, it is important for us to understand that they are not the same. Whereas apathy means to “not care about”, apatheia refers to being “unaffected by”. The best example to illustrate this difference is by taking a sporting competition. If I show apathy towards the kickboxing match I enter, I won’t care whether I win or not. Whereas, if I show apatheia towards the sporting match, I might focus on winning, but not be overly joyous or sad if I win or lose.
Apatheia results from things that the Stoics call “indifferents”. An indifferent is basically something that tends to affect us, but shouldn’t. To understand this, let’s turn to the last good caesar himself, Marcus Aurelius: “If you are plagued by anything external, it is not due to the thing itself, but your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment”. What Marcus Aurelius says here, is that it is not the things that happen to us are either good or bad, but that it is our perception of what happens to us that makes us experience them as if they are good or bad. This might seem like a strange assertion, but actually it is a fairly clever insight. For example, if I break a leg, I might think this is some terrible tragedy that has befallen me. After all, I am in pain and I will not be able to work for the immediate future. However, it is the fact that I judge pain to be negative, as well as my inability to work, that make this a bad thing. The Stoics would say that we should, therefore, withhold judgement on whether or not the things that happen to us are positives or negatives.
The same thing goes for future and past sufferings. Seneca, in his ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’, tells us about these sufferings: “What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all.” What Seneca says here, is obvious: Don’t worry until there is cause to worry. And even then, don’t worry excessively…
The dichotomy of control
When things happen to us, we can exhibit apatheia, that much is clear. We should not let the indifferents influence our actions. However, we tend to worry a lot in life, and that worry does influence our actions. Some of us may be influenced to act more carefully, others more recklessly because we worry. To tackle this, the Stoics devised the dichotomy of control. The dichotomy of control divides life into two different kinds of things:
- Those things we can control.
- Those things we can’t control.
As Epictetus puts it: “There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”
By keeping to “whatever affairs are your own” and reducing “whatever are not properly our own affairs” to a bare minimum, we are avoiding suffering. In simple words, we should accept that we have no control over some things, and be at peace with that, while we should try to be as good as possible in controlling what we can control. A good example of this is sickness. We shouldn’t worry about whether we get sick, because we can’t control whether we get sick. We can, however, make sure we have a healthy lifestyle. Also, get your kids vaccinated. When we do get sick, we shouldn’t worry about the disease’s progression, because we can’t control it. We can, however, go to the doctor and follow their instructions as best we can. Whether we recover, or whither and die, is ultimately not in our power. So why would we use the energy worrying about it? Does worry at all help us? As you see here, the dichotomy of control tends to be complementary to the indifferents, in that they both inspire apatheia. We are still very much engaged with the result, our actions are just not influenced by the prognosis.
The dichotomy of control is really a central tenet of stoic philosophy. The stoics are convinced that keeping strictly to the dichotomy of control, will not just keep at bay serious suffering, but might actually bring happiness. Seneca explains this to his pupil Lucilius, in ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’, number 21, using a quote from Epicurus (on whom Seneca depends heavily throughout this collection of letters):
“It was to him that Epicurus addressed the well-known saying urging him to make Pythocles rich, but not rich in the vulgar and equivocal way. “If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” This idea is too clear to need an explanation, and too clever to need reinforcement. There is, however, one point on which I would warn you, – not to consider that this statement applies only to riches; its value will be the same, no matter how you apply it. “If you wish to make Pythocles honourable, do not add to his honours, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish Pythocles to have pleasure forever, do not add to his pleasures, but subtract from his desires”; “if you wish to make Pythocles an old man, filling his life to the full, do not add to his years, but subtract from his desires.””
The point being, of course, that by living modestly, and remaining squarely within the things that fall under our control, we can achieve true happiness which is independent of the fickleness of Fortune.
The stoics believed in what they called “Logos”. The Logos is most accurately, but by no means entirely explained as “the reason that pervades the kosmos”. It is like a panentheistic conception of God, where God is said to be in everything. From the smallest atom to the largest planet, the stoics believed all of it was governed by reason. And it’s easy to see why they thought this was the case. Everything in their surroundings was organised. Stars, the sun, the moon, they all seemed to behave according to a pattern. Rivers flow downward to the lowest point, rocks, when thrown, always fell down. There was a certain order in the world to which it seemed everything adhered. The source of these things was the Logos. And because the Logos pervades the universe, it also resided in humans. But, through our civilisations and their comforts, the stoics noticed, we had separated ourselves from nature and stopped living with the Logos. We no longer live in accordance with the Logos. We have the human mind to thank for that.
However, the Stoics, optimistic bunch as they were, thought that we don’t have to separate ourselves from society in order to live in accordance with nature. Rather, we would have to understand, accept and prepare for nature in order to live in accordance with it. This is where fortune comes in.
Though the Stoics may be known as being a mopey bunch, one of their traits is significantly less present in the modern understanding of stoic philosophy: gratitude. In looking at nature, they saw that animals, especially predators, were fortunate to have food. It is a taxing challenge to hunt for your food and there are often days where a predator doesn’t get to eat. Comparing this to the relatively steady supplies of food and water in ancient Athens and Rome, they understood that we are fortunate to live in such abundance, but that it wouldn’t take much for fortune to turn around and strike us with drought and famine. Understanding this, the stoics devised what is perhaps their most central – and at least Seneca, a man ironically living in massive wealth, ‘s favourite – tenet: “fortune is often good to us, but she is fickle and not to be trusted.”
The Stoics believe that a person never truly owns anything. Or rather, that a person should never consider himself the owner of anything, simply because a cruel twist of fate can easily leave them with nothing. As a consequence, they would be very grateful for whatever it was they did have, and they would prepare themselves for times where fortune withdraws its favour. Seneca, for instance, made a habit of spending certain amounts of time at certain intervals as if he were a poor man, advising the same to his pupil Lucilius:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.” (Moral Letters to Lucilius, letter 18).
This, too, is a central tenet of stoic philosophy; that we should prepare ourselves when fortune is kind, for when the favour of fortune falls away. The stoics would call this the “premeditatio malorum”.
The Premeditatio Malorum, is one of the exercises stoics advice you repeat twice daily, in different forms. It roughly translates to “premeditation of evils” or “prepondering the bad”. And it is an exercise which prepares us for the many ails that may befall us during our lives. Marcus Aurelius describes his morning routine thusly:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural”
As an emperor, we might imagine (and as much is clear from his Meditations), that Marcus Aurelius had to do a lot of things he didn’t want to do, and had to deal with a lot of people he didn’t want to deal with. Yet he recognised, as stoics do, that being angry, or delaying meetings, doesn’t help anybody. So he used this exercise to help him prepare for what he understood was inevitable. And in our current day, similar things are inevitable, in the sense that should they not happen to us today, they shall happen the next day, or the next. For instance, we will be hassled by obnoxious colleagues or clients, by computers that fail to comply with our already low standards. We will be bothered by unreasonable demands from our supervisors or some kind of bureaucratic institution. These things have become inevitable facts of life. And knowing this, the Stoics would argue, it is not just to our own benefit, but in fact, our responsibility to ourselves and the world to prepare for these things as best we can.
Another thing that is inevitable in life, by the very nature of life, is death. This is where the image of gloominess that surrounds Stoic philosophy comes from. Like mostly everyone, the Stoics realised we were going to die. Not just that, but everything around us is going to die. Regarding that, the only uncertainty we have is who dies when. Provided this uncertainty, we would be advised to prepare ourselves for the deaths of all those who matter to us, so that we may deal with it more readily when that time inevitably comes. This is an important point, made by all the stoics at different points: “to deal with it more readily”. Some people read over this part of the line, thinking the stoics claimed to have devised a way not to have to mourn the loss of a loved one. That is not the case. The point of the preparation, with any preparation, is to deal with things in a better way than you otherwise could. When Bear Grylls packs his bag, he still has to do the adventure and overcome its obstacles. If he does it right, he will just have less of a hard time dealing with those obstacles, and thus the adventure. The same is true for grief. The point is not to forego grief. It is to see it coming, understand it, realise you will be fine without this person/animal, and move on from grief after having rightly processed it. The advice, therefore, is to reflect on death. Your own, and those of your loved ones. The most important thing and the most obvious conclusion anyone will reach in doing this exercise is that “you will eventually be fine, you will eventually be able to live your life again”.
A little disclaimer, though: Avoid this exercise if you are dealing with depression, as it might trigger suicidal thoughts. Should you still want to do this, consult with your therapist.
Because the Stoics are older philosophers, many of their works are available freely on the internet. So I would like to take some space here to recommend a few of their works:
A transcript of the Letters to Lucilius can be found here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius
A free version (though the paid versions are well worth it) of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, can be found here: http://files.libertyfund.org/files/2133/Aurelius_1464_LFeBk.pdf It does start at PDF-page 59, because the authors wanted some credit and historical connotations.
And the Enchiridion by Epictetus is available as a free Ebook here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45109
I haven’t been able to find a free version of “On the Shortness of Life” by Seneca, but I also highly recommend readers read that as well. Currently £3.99 on Amazon.co.uk.
And of course, the SEP entry on Stoicism is also a good read.