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Relevance of Stoic philosophy even today


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“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” — Epictetus

‘Stoic’ is a system that could be described as a beautiful daily journal for those who are wandering in a maze of blind alleys which guides you on this road, in the art of living. 

For more than 2,000 years, Stoic philosophy has been the secret operating system of wise leaders, artists, athletes, brilliant thinkers, and ordinary citizens. In addition, Stoicism has been practiced by kings, presidents, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs. Both historical and modern men illustrate Stoicism as a way of life.

The Stoics offer us valuable strategies of thinking about and dealing with hardships that remain relevant for modern society. Good ideas and novel inspirations can come from the most unexpected places. Stoicism is one such way of life.

For those of us who live our lives in the real world, there is one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism. 

Stoicism was born in a world falling apart. Invented in Athens just a few decades after Alexander the Great’s conquests and premature death upended the Greek world, Stoicism took off because it offered security and peace in a time of warfare and crisis. The Stoic creed didn’t promise material security or peace in the afterlife; but it did promise an unshakable happiness in this life.

Stoicism tells us that no happiness can be secure if it’s rooted in changeable, destructible things. Our bank accounts can grow or shrink, our careers can prosper or falter, even our loved ones can be taken from us. There is only one place the world cannot touch – it cannot touch our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be brave, to be reasonable, and to be good.

Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. 

Stoicism directs those who are devoted to the technique, to the truth that they find within themselves, so that they can come to know reality directly and can learn to deal with it in a positive, creative way. It is a technique extraordinary in its simplicity, its lack of all dogma, and above all, in the results it offers.

Many of the Stoic aphorisms are simple to remember and even sound smart when quoted, but that’s not what stoic philosophy is really about. The goal is to turn these words into action. As Musonius Rufus, the Roman Stoic philosopher put it, the justification for philosophy is when “one brings together sound teaching with sound conduct”.

Actions are louder than words. Show everyone that you are the person you think you are, then back up your claims with your works.

It is interesting because it guides you on how to live your life from a Stoic perspective. There’s very little theoretical philosophy that shows that whatever the nature of the world turns out to be, it doesn’t make any difference to human life. If the universe is made up of atoms, or it’s made up of something else, those are interesting questions but they’re not going to affect your life. 

All of us seek peace, tranquillity and harmony, because this is what we lack in our lives. We all want to be happy; we regard it as our right. Yet happiness is a goal we strive towards more often than attain. At times we all experience dissatisfaction in life—agitation, irritation, disharmony, and suffering.

Our personal dissatisfactions remain limited to ourselves; we keep sharing our suffering with others. The atmosphere around each unhappy person becomes charged with agitation, so that all who enter that environment may also feel agitated and unhappy. In this way, individual tensions combine to create the tensions of society. Things happen that we do not want; things that we want do not happen. And we are ignorant of how or why this process works, just as we are each ignorant of our own beginning and end.

Broadly speaking the Discourses of Epictetus are about how to live your life: they present the basic principles of Stoicism over and over, from different angles and exploring the consequences in different contexts. Arguably the most basic one, which Epictetus says, some things are under your control and other things are not under your control. 

Then he lists the kinds of things that are under your control and those that are not: things under your control are your behaviour, your decisions, and your rational thinking processes; the things that are not under your control are all the externalities: your health, your wealth, your education, your stature in life, and your reputation.

It’s not that you can’t influence the things not under your control, of course you can, but they’re not entirely under your control. You can only try to be healthy, and wealthy, and educated, and have a good life in the sense of externalities. In life, things don’t go your way all the time. 

The first emotional reaction you have to something, they called an impression. So, for instance, let’s say that you are walking in the street by yourself at night and you hear a sound that doesn’t feel right. 

Your first impression – your first reaction – might be one of fear. The Stoics say there’s nothing you can do about that. There are natural reactions, and you cannot and you should not, in fact, suppress them. 

ut what you should do, if it is at all possible, is examine them, step back for a second and say: “Why am I afraid? Is there really something to be afraid of, or not?’ If there is something to be afraid of, a real danger, by all means deal with the danger; but a lot of the time the first impression is actually misleading. 

If you get angry, for instance, at something, think: ‘Why am I getting angry here? Am I being insulted? What is an insult? What is this person who is insulting me trying to tell me? Is there some truth perhaps in what he’s saying? Should I even pay attention to an insult to begin with? Why am I reacting this way?” 

The aim is to examine your emotion and to manage or gradually eliminate the negative, destructive ones. 

The obvious example of a destructive emotion, particularly in Seneca’s writing, was anger. Seneca calls it a ‘temporary madness’. If you do things in anger, you’re very likely going to do things that you regret.

Even if you have anger and indignation at injustice, those are positive emotions. The Stoics believed that good character is made of the practice of four fundamental virtues, we call them the cardinal virtues. They often refer to the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Or if you prefer: wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation. 

You can see that one of those virtues is justice, and yes, a sense of justice needs to be cultivated because it is a positive emotion. The contrast between anger and justice is exactly this: that anger will cloud your judgement, even if it is justifiable anger, even if there is a good reason to be angry at something. If you react just on the basis of anger, you’re very likely going to make wrong decisions or act rashly; but on the other hand there are situations where you do want to cultivate a sense of indignation, a sense of justice being violated, and you do want to do something about it, and that’s a positive emotion—that’s something you definitely should do.

One of the things I find interesting about the modern Stoic authors is that those people really do try to live their life that way. They are not just writing about it; they’re not just theorising about it; they really practise it. 

William B. Irvine (Bill) is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who has become an expert, a virtuoso I would say, in dealing with insults, which is one thing that Stoics receive a lot. 

Let me give you an example: one day he was in his department and he met a colleague who said “Oh Bill, hi, I was thinking of citing one of your papers in my book”, and Bill was thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting—I’m glad that one of my colleagues thinks my work is worth citing”. But the colleague immediately added “Yes, I’m trying to decide on whether your work is just mistaken or downright evil”. 

Obviously, that’s not a compliment. The way that Bill responded was straight out of Epictetus: he almost quoted Epictetus verbatim. He said: “Oh, well that’s because you only read one of my papers: if you’d read the other ones you’d see that I’m really evil.” So, he turned things around; that’s exactly what Epictetus did.

There is an anecdote in the Discourses of Epictetus, where one of his students, tells him: “I heard so-and-so speaking ill of you.” And Epictetus’ response is: “Well, that’s because he doesn’t know me well, because otherwise he would be saying much, much worse things.”

The later Epictetus, added a second component to this where the stoics retained this fundamental idea that it’s about practising virtue, it’s about having the good moral life. So, the idea was that you achieved tranquillity in life, with tranquillity of mind, if you developed a magnanimous attitude towards the world. That’s why the example of the way Bill Irvine responds to insults. Bill’s response to insults is magnanimous. If someone insults him he uses humour to deflect the insult, and through this achieves inner calmness.

Most of our lives do present us with challenges, even minor challenges, for Stoicism is perfectly appropriate. Let me give you an example. I have a very good friend, who is both a practising Stoic and a practising Buddhist. He says Stoicism has helped him cope with moderate inconveniences, like getting to go to work and having to deal with the obnoxious behaviour of some people which irritated him then once he started practising how to sort of readjust his mental expectations, he just saw these things as the kind of behaviour that really cannot touch him. He realised the value of the age old adage: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.

Stoicism is an antidote to a culture of fragility. It strengthens the individual by helping them to control their reactions to the world. The world is full of chaos and disorder. This is a permanent feature of reality. We can take reality as an affront to our desires, or we can learn to weather misfortune with grace. It is easy find the truths of Stoicism reflected in the practices of many religions, and in the findings of modern psychology. 

In the final analysis, everything that affects us for good or ill depends on our own judgements and on how we respond to the circumstances that befall us. The contexts range over the whole gamut of human experience—tyrannical threats to life and limb and political freedom, loss of property, jealousy and resentment, anxiety, family squabbles and affections, sexual allure, dinner-table manners, bereavement, friendship, dress, hygiene, and much more. This guide to life is as demanding as it is comprehensive; that no occasion is so trivial that these salient doctrines do not apply. The cultural and historical significance of stoicism have never been in doubt.

So as you can see: Stoicism is relevant today because a good Stoic is a happy person surrounded by people who are happy to know them. A few Stoics make a positive impact on everything around them; if everyone was a Stoic the world would be a happy, productive and peaceful place.

“The Brahmans had no cattle, no gold, and no wealth. They had study as their wealth and grain. They guarded the holy life as their treasure.” – Gautama Buddha


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