Categories
Opinion philosophy

The Revival of Stoicism

The Philosophical Trend

The Ancient Greeks had much to teach us. They set the foundations that would later transform our moral philosophy, science and politics.

But Ancient Greek philosophy was far from homogeneous. There were many competing schools of thought, and they all saw the world in fundamentally different ways.

The Stoics were influenced mostly by Plato and the Cynics. They believed in a material nature of man, and that the structure of the universe can be expressed by reason. For them, nature was primary. If you lived according to nature, then you lived a good life. The faculty of reason is natural,Thus, you must live according to reason.

This flexibility gave room for the Roman Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius to modify the teachings of their Greek predecessors to their world. And likewise, many books today have done the same. Some examples are Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic, Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, and Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life

But before this revival, Stoicism and similar philosophies were forgotten for a long time, after academic philosophy shifted its interest to linguistics. If you ask an academic philosopher what a good life is like, they will reply by asking you what you mean by “good” and what you mean by “life.”

If you are looking for a philosophy to guide your behavior, then you must look away from academia. According to Irvine, you must study the work of ancient philosophers and construct your own system of ethics.

As Irvine concedes, even though he is a stoic, a life philosophy must be tailored to the individual.

But Stoicism can be beneficial for all, because through its teachings, we can learn to better appreciate the present and be more resilient in the face of hardship, and to only think about what matters.

To have no philosophy of life is much worse than having an imperfect philosophy of life. Without a life philosophy, you are guided by the default spirit of your times, which may be an attachment to entertainment, new clothes, and new gadgets.

In the modern world, there are many who have chosen to revive some of these traditions. Curiously, the Stoics have made an epic return.

There are now many books, forums, and meetups dedicated to the study and practice of Stoicism. And with hundreds of titles on Stoicism now available and millions of books sold, we can say that this brand of Greek philosophy has entered the mainstream.

This made me wonder. How come, out of all the schools of thought that existed, it was the Stoics that made a comeback? One reason could be that they had the largest amount of surviving literature, but a quick search reveals that this is not true at all. There are not many ancient texts about Stoicism that have survived.

A second reason could be that Stoicism matches the modern spirit and habits. But modern habits are anything but Stoic. If anything, the modern world is materialistic, hedonistic, and nihilistic – with no semblance to the Stoic way of life.

Then there is a third reason, and it was the return of difficult times. After-all, Stoicism began at a tumultuous period for the Greeks, when hardship and death were commonplace.

People who have found Stoicism the most useful are those who have had tough lives. Some of these are professional athletes, who go through grueling training and constantly risk physical injury.

Others are in the military. They must content with trauma and tragedy. And there are the entrepreneurs, who are in a constant state of angst and uncertainty about the future. While the Stoic ethic would not be a nice fit for most of the population, it is easy to see how for many non-religious people in difficult professions, Stoicism has become their Bible.

The Schools of Philosophy

The Cyrenaics were a sensual hedonist Greek school of philosophy. They taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure. This is difference from the Epicurean and Stoic determination to avoid pain. The Cyernaics were concerned with positively enjoyable sensations. they gave a higher value to momentary pleasure than anticipatory pleasures, or those from memory. The school died out within a century and was replaced by Epicureanism.

Epicurus and Zeno started the schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism. But the interesting thing, is that while these two schools competed and had many differences, there were many similarities. In fact, Epicurus was quoted by famous Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, but he was labelled as effeminate by Epictetus.

Seneca says this to Lucilius,

“I’m still turning over the pages of Epicurus, and the following saying, one I read today, comes from him: ‘To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy.’”

Epicurus advocated for many of the same things the Stoics did: pleasure in moderation, the avoidance of pain, to not fear death or anything beyond one’s control.

The Fear of Death

The Epicureans believed that if fear of death and fear of
the gods was eliminated, then man could live like the gods, without any anxiety.

Epicurus said,

“The most terrible evil, death, is nothing for us, since when we exist, death does not exist, and when death exists, we do not exist.”

In his epic poem, On the Nature of Things, Lucretius explains why the fear of death is irrational. The first reason is based on the Epicurean belief in atomic theory. That we are made up of atoms that, at the time of our death, will disorganize and we will cease to exist. Once consciousness is no longer present, such as in sleep, there will be no experience of pain or anxiety. It would be as if you never existed.

And the second reason is that all the greatest men in history have died. Why should you feel more deserving than them of immortality?

Democritus, warned by ripe old age that the motions of his mind’s memory were failing, voluntarily went to meet death and offered him his Iife. Epicurus himself died, when the light of his life had accomplished its course-he who outshone the human race in genius and obscured the luster of all as the rising of the ethereal sun extinguishes the stars. Will you, then, be hesitant and indignant when death calls?

Not only are you not great like these men, but you squander most of your time while you are alive. You live in fear and are in constant state of unawareness.

You, even while you still have life and light, are as good as dead: you squander the greater part of your time in sleep; you snore when awake; you never stop daydreaming; you are burdened with a mind disturbed by groundless fear; and often you cannot discover what is wrong with you, when, like some drunken wretch, you are buffeted with countless cares on every side and drift along aimlessly in utter bewilderment of mind.

The myth about Epicureans was that they were hedonists. They were not. Epicurus tells us about three types of pleasures:

  1. Natural and Necessary (Food, Sleep)
  2. Natural but Not Necessary (Sex, Social Status)
  3. Not Natural and Not Necessary (Excessive Sexual Pleasure,
    Alcohol)

The existence of this third category confirms that the Epicureans were not hedonistic at all.

The Highest Value

The main difference between the Stoics and the Epicureans was
in the highest values that they held. For the Stoics, it was virtue. To do one’s duty was all that mattered, because to be virtuous was the highest good.

And notice here the key difference. You should do good because it is virtuous, not be virtuous because it is good. This is the opposite of what the Epicurean philosophy, which only accepted the value of virtuous behaviors if they were good for you.

I will mention two examples that explain this difference: marriage and crime.

The Stoics think that you should get married, not because it is pleasurable or good for you, but because it is your duty to do so (marriage is in accordance with nature). But the Epicureans did not think marriage was necessary. For them, something is only good insofar as it reduces suffering or brings pleasure. If marriage brought more pain than pleasure, you should not get married.

If someone broke the law, the Stoics would think this behavior bad because it is not virtuous, and therefore, bad. But the Epicureans would say that breaking the law is bad because of the bad repercussions that would befall the perpetrator.

Because of this key difference, the two schools would differ in their conception of the good life. For the Stoics, a good life is to be of service to your community, to do your duty and to endure hardship and accept it.

But for the Epicureans, a good life was one in which you did not search for complex pleasures, kept a close group of friends, and stayed close to home.

What Can Stoicism Teach the Modern World?

To put any set of ideas into practice is difficult, no
matter which time period you are in. The Stoic thinkers themselves could not practice what they preached. Seneca was involved in politics and finance, and in these professions, you cannot have a Stoic attitude. You could not only think about things that were in your control, you had to go beyond that.

But as Nietzsche said, Stoicism is not appropriate for all people. It is more fitting for some people who must deal with uncertainty, but not so much to those with a different fate, one that is more stable and continuous. To the latter group, Epicureanism makes more sense.

The Epicurean chooses the situations, persons, and events that suit his sensitive, intellectual constitution, and he renounces everything else – this includes the greater part of experience, for it is too heavy for him.

For it would be a supreme loss to them to forfeit their fine sensibility, and to acquire the hard, stoical hide with hedgehog prickles in exchange.

The Gay Science, Nietzsche

The Stoic gets used to swallowing stones and vermin, glass, and scorpions, without disgust. He has a stomach for all the accidents of existence. Stoicism is advisable for men who go through difficult and violent times.

But those who have a more stable life should make Epicurean arrangements, all men that have devoted themselves to intellectual labor have done this.

Control

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”

Epictetus

For Irvine, what the Stoics were trying to say, but not always successfully, was that there is not a dichotomy when it comes to control, there is a
trichotomy.

In the quote above, Epictetus mentions that there are things we can control and things we cannot control. This resembles the Serenity Prayer in
Christianity. But more in line with reality, there is also a third category, and those are things we can partially control.

Opinions, desire, and aversion are not completely under control, for example, in contrast to what Epictetus tells us.

Some things are totally outside our control, and those are external outcomes that don’t depend on our actions. We cannot change our bodies, our family, the past, or the opinions of other people (this is why the stoics warned against the pursuit of fame). We can decide what our values are, how we will respond to what happens to us, and what kind of life we want to live.

We should clearly avoid everything that is beyond our control, we should focus the most on things
that are completely within our control, and we should direct our remaining attention on what we can partially control.

A Psychology of Action

  1. Impression: You have good and bad impressions about things. There are things that you wish to avoid and things that you wish to get.
  2. Assent: This when you have an initial impression about something, and you either confirm or deny it. ‘Salesmen are dishonest’ is an impression that you can accept or deny.
  3. Impulse: This is when you emotionally react to your impression and assent. If you perceive someone’s insults towards you as painful, and then you assent that they are true, you will have an impulse towards feeling anger or shame. But if you perceive insults as empty words that are not worth giving any attention to, then your impulse will be to feel nothing when insulted.

The idea is that your preconceived notions of the world determines how you emotionally react to it. If you can change what you assent to, after reflecting on your impressions, then you can change your feelings and behavior. And if you can do this repeatedly, then even your impressions of the world can change. If you were using reason, these
impressions become more accurate.

Musashi, swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings notes the difference between observing and perceiving. The perceiving eye is weak, but the observing eye is strong. The observing eyes sees simply what is there, while the perceiving eye
sees more than there is.

The observing eye sees events, clear of distractions and exaggerations. The perceiving eye sees major setbacks and obstacles that cannot be surmounted.

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.

Publius Syrus

It is your perception of the world that determines how you respond to it. If you go through life without revising your preconceived notions, then you will have no sense of control over your destiny. There is an equation in your mind that will determine your perception, and how you respond to things. It is somewhat in your control.

Negative Visualization

For the Stoics, the point was not to avoid the good, but to not be controlled or attached to it. You should, as a practice, imagine losing everything you own. You should imagine losing your health, your loved ones, and failing in your profession. This is a practice that Irvine calls “negative visualization” and it is what all stoics, regardless of their differences in
other matters, took seriously.

This practice makes you more appreciate of what you have because it teaches you to “want” what you have, instead of wanting something you lack. If you are only happy when you achieve things you lack, then no amount of achievement will be enough. In short, you should have gratitude, because not doing so will result in a life of constant dissatisfaction.

Take What is Useful

Stoicism can be a substitute for religion. The religious influences from the East are clear. To be mindful and to focus on what you can control are ideas of Eastern origin, but as a philosophical system, Stoicism is not ideal for every person. As a philosophy, it is difficult to follow literally, although you must ask, who’s philosophy exactly?

There have been many variations on Stoic ideas, and it is not clear what the Stoic consensus is. That may be one reason why many professional philosophers have disagreed about the basic teachings of Stoicism.

You can criticize Stoicism on the basis that those who adopt it have lost at the game of life, and are in need of a ‘sour grapes’ philosophy, but Seneca, for example, wrote about the benefits of wine. play, change of scenery, and fresh air for lifting one’s spirit. There is nothing bad about pleasure and the good things inherently, according to the Stoics, but one should never make pleasure their highest value.

But this does not mean that we cannot benefit from some of the ideas of Stoicism, regardless of what you think about their general philosophy.

Negative visualization, focusing on what is your control, and changing your perception are useful ideas that anyone can benefit from, and they require no sacrifices on your part. You do not need to donate any money, and you do not need to set aside time for prayer or take part in any ceremonies.

It is a system of thought that you can have privately, and the only person you need to hold you accountable is yourself.

4 replies on “The Revival of Stoicism”

“Take what is useful”. I think that is a great advice for constructing our own system of ethics. I think Stoicism is powerful, but also very demanding…

In a world obscured by self-serving perceptions whose foundation is fear and whose structure is avoidance it’s useful to have a reliable moral compass to navigate its twisting paths. Thank you

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.