Even if one is not interested in the philosophy of stoicism, it is extremely useful to decipher the spirit of the Ancient Roman people, just by the popularity that stoicism once held. Historians often points out the range of stoicism, being popular from slaves all the way up the Emperors themselves. No doubt this was because the practicality and usefulness of the philosophy.
To give a brief overview of stoicism, taking one of the many meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sums it up perfectly:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.”
This quote is useful in that it includes many of the ideas presented in stoicism: the seek for truth, the refusal of evil’s effect on you, the bond between man, the acceptance of divine, and negative visualization.
The concept of negative visualization is what I find as the most practical in stoic thought. For instance, I know that my dishwasher will break at some point. I can see if it gets old and begins to malfunction, but if I continue to ignore the problem and pretend it’s not there then I’ll be more upset when it breaks. But, if I accept that it will soon break it won’t have any effect on me. Epictetus addresses this in maxim to of the Enchiridion:
“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind or contribute to use, or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup of which you are fond- for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child, or your wife, that you embrace a mortal- and thus if either of them dies, you can bear it.”
Now obviously Epictetus took a more extreme view than Aurelius did. It is understandable considering Epictetus was a slave and had a considerably hard life, but the essence of the quote still remains regardless: if you expect the worst, then when it eventually comes, it will not affect you.
Going back to what Aurelius said, why not exercise these thoughts in the very dawn of each day? I consistently encounter people each day that annoy me, but I do not let it get to me. I know that each day they will annoy me, it is in their nature and outside of my control, and soon enough I stop noticing them. I expect their actions and therefore it does not affect me.
Stoicism has had it’s critics, and rightfully so. Two main critics have been the two philosophers Hegel and Bertrand Russel. In his “History of Western Philosophy” Russell states he views stoicism as a doctrine of:
“We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy”
Which displays the grievances many people have with stoicism: that it is a doctrine of indifference and numbness, that is gives up the search for happiness. It is all just criticism, but I believe that certain aspects of stoicism are meant for those with extremely hard circumstances. For instance the late James Stockdale, who for a period was a prisoner of war in a Vietnamese jail, wrote an essay titled “Courage Under Fire” in which he discusses the uses of the stoic philosophy of Epictetus to cope with his situation. This again shows the practical side of the philosophy.
Another criticism is that the philosophy is dated, which to an extent it is. However, the ethical side can still remain in our modern time. The perfect example of this comes after the tragic shooting in Paris just some weeks ago. The world responded largely with hate and bitterness. But a man named Antoine Leiris, who’s wife was murdered in the incident, wrote a response to the attackers. The entire rebuttal is incredibly stoic in attitude and echoes the maxims of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca. The video can be found here:
The last criticism of stoicism comes from their acceptance of a Divine Being, and therefore the refusal of free will. Stoicism is an extremely deterministic philosophy on the grounds that all events are preordained by god, and therefore outside the individual’s control and the individual’s worry. This fits with the stoic concept of denying worry to events outside one’s control, but it doesn’t quite fit with the agnostic spirit of today’s attitude. However, it has been suggested that one can take a pantheistic read of the stoics. Meaning that you can replace the aspect of god with the nature of the world outside our control and it holds the same meaning. Whether or not this is a viable solutions is debatable. It must hold some meaning, because Baruch Spinoza, the famous thinker on pantheism, held Seneca as one of his favorite philosophers.
With some last remarks I want to give some practical advice somewhat ignored by the stoics at times. As any person interested in politics knows, there are many people whom do not listen to reason, even when faced with the truth. And though this does not directly affect you, this person’s right to participate in politics while denying truth does affect you a great deal. Maxim 22 in the Enchiridion says:
“If you have an earnest desire towards philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to have the multitude laugh and sneer, and say, “He is returned to us a philosopher all at once;” and “Whence this supercilious look? ” Now, for your part, do not have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you, as one appointed by God to this particular station.”
Meaning there are some men who’s opinions cannot be changed and do not listen to truth, but you as the philosopher, hold truth and must try to lead men in that direction. If men do not wish to find the truth, then it is nothing to you. If you acquire anything but the truth, then abandon it and continue your search. Instead, continue to seek truth, because even if men deny it, by your efforts they will still benefit from it.