"Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together."
As the Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy describes it, "when considering the doctrines of the Stoics, it is important to remember that they think of philosophy not as an interesting pastime or even a particular body of knowledge, but as a way of life. They define philosophy as a kind of practice or exercise in the expertise concerning what is beneficial. Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed." For a Stoic, philosophy isn't just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training, including such topics as "logic, Socratic dialog and self-dialog, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder."
Tough stuff. It fills me with admiration to know that despite the arduousness of this regimen, stoicism became the dominant philosophy among the educated elite in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire for a period of nearly 800 years. Unfortunately, such personal enlightenment among the ruling class didn't lead them to the political reforms necessary to liberate the slaves and underclasses of that society who found no consolation or justice in such an accepting view of their downtrodden lives. They, as we will soon see, turned instead to Christianity with its promises of reward in an afterlife governed by a forgiving god who loves us despite our sins in this world—a much easier pill to swallow.
For more on Stoicism, and its survival among the fittest philosophies, here are some quotes from its most famous practitioners before I examine the body of Stoic thought in general.
Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire.
Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.
If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.
From Marcus Aurelius:
Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself.
If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.
Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.
Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.
From Seneca the Younger:
The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.
Virtue is nothing else than right reason.
Stoicism (3rd Century BCE) was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium. Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire. Stoic doctrine was a popular and durable philosophy until the closing of all philosophy schools in 529 AD by order of the emperor Justinian I, who perceived their pagan character as at odds with the Christian faith. (Setting humanity back for the next 1,000 years.)
All true being is corporeal. Yes. There are no supernatural incorporeal elements to our existence.
The word stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by resolute practice and asceticism that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline. Physics embraces the doctrines as to the nature and organization of the universe, and ethics draws from them its conclusions for practical life. Philosophy is the science of the principles on which the moral life ought to be founded. Yes. Had the Stoics had more scientific knowledge, they would have arrived at the right conclusions.
A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism: all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said, "I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world." Yes! And racism, nationalism, and religious belief systems keep us in separate tribes.
Needs to Adapt
The agreement of human action with the law of nature, of the human will with the divine will, or life according to nature, is virtue, the chief good and highest end in life. There is no divine will, but we must obey the laws of nature and learn to survive to reach our highest possibilities.
The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of "moral and intellectual perfection," would not suffer such emotions. We are all evolved from the same emotional animals. We will always suffer the tension of short-term individually focused emotions raging against our long-term societal interests. It is true though that a sage can learn to control their emotions through reason and stop them from wreaking destruction.
The Stoics introduced little that was new. They sought instead to give a practical application to the dogmas that they took ready-made from previous systems. The practical application of wisdom is a true virtue of philosophy, but previous systems have not been good enough to follow. New ideas still need to be introduced. I believe these come from the understanding of life inside an evolutionary system.
All knowledge originates in the real impressions of the senses, which the soul, being a blank slate at birth, receives in the form of presentations, which when confirmed by repetitions, are developed by the understanding into concepts. Knowledge does come from our senses and understanding after repetition, but our genes prime us to perceive the world in certain ways. We are not blank slates at birth.
Later Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasized that because "virtue is sufficient for happiness," a sage was immune to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase “stoic calm." Because the universe is changing and we are in a competition to survive, nothing is immune to misfortune. A sage will accept this, however, and handle it well.
Stoicism held a pantheistic belief where God is never fully transcendent but always immanent. Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe. Stoicism, unlike Christianity, does not posit a beginning or end to the universe. No god is manifested in this universe. It is run as if created by a blind watchmaker. We can now trace back to a beginning of this universe, although we do not know what came before it.
When I watch others attempt to sail through life blissfully, relying on religious beliefs to fill their sails during calm periods of geniality, only to gnash their teeth and wail in doubt during inexplicable times of misfortune, I sometimes struggle to contain loud exhortations for a simpler explanation—that the world is harsh and only we can comfort ourselves and one another—but then I remind myself of Marcus Aurelius and calmly endure. May his and other Stoic practices continue to soothe your life after this reminder of their capacities. Peace.