The way of the Stoic: ‘Living in agreement with Nature’
In this chapter you will learn:
• Who the Stoics were and the essence of their philosophy: that the goal is ‘living in agreement with Nature’
• About the overall structure of Stoicism and the three theoretical ‘topics’ of the philosophical curriculum: ‘Physics’, ‘Ethics’ and ‘Logic’
• How these inform three dimensions of Stoic practice: The Disciplines of ‘Desire’, ‘Action’ and ‘Judgement’
• How to contemplate the nature of the ‘good’ and how to appraise your sphere of control in life
The duration of a man’s life is merely a small point in time; the substance of it ever flowing away, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to decay. His soul is a restless vortex, good fortune is uncertain and fame is unreliable; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as vapour, are all those that belong to the soul. Life is warfare and a sojourn in a foreign land. Reputation after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide man? One thing alone: philosophy, the love of wisdom. And philosophy consists in this: for a man to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within him from violence and injuries, and above all from harmful pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically, regardless of the actions or inaction of others; to contentedly embrace all things that happen to him, as coming from the same source from whom he himself also came, and above all things, with humility and calm cheerfulness, to anticipate death, as being nothing else but the dissolution of those elements, of which every living being is composed.
And if the elements themselves suffer nothing by this their perpetual conversion of one into another, that dissolution, and alteration, which is so common to them all, why should it be feared by any man? Is this not according to nature? But nothing that is according to nature can be evil. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.15)
| || |
Self-assessment: Stoic attitudes and core principles
Before reading this chapter, rate how strongly you agree with the following statements, using the five-point (1–5) scale below, and then re-rate your attitudes once you’ve read and digested the contents.
1. Strongly disagree, 2. Disagree, 3. Neither agree nor disagree, 4. Agree, 5. Strongly agree
1 ‘The goal of life is to ‘live in agreement with Nature’ by willingly accepting things outside of our control.’
2 ‘We should also live in harmony with our own human nature by trying to cultivate reason and progress towards perfect wisdom and virtue.’
3 ‘We should live in harmony with the rest of mankind by seeing ourselves as all fundamentally akin to each other insofar as we possess reason.’
Introduction: What is Stoicism?
What is Stoicism? To recap: it’s an important school of ancient philosophy founded in Athens around 301 BC by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno who hailed from the city of Citium in Cyprus. However, as we’ll see, Stoicism was also regarded as one of several competing schools inspired by the life and thought of Socrates, the pre-eminent Athenian philosopher, who had been executed a century earlier.
It was originally called ‘Zenonism’ but that name was dropped. Presumably that was because the Stoics didn't consider their founders to be perfectly wise, and they didn't want their philosophy to become a personality cult. Instead, it came to be known as ‘Stoicism’ because Zeno and his followers met in the Stoa Poikilê, or ‘Painted Porch’, a famous colonnade decorated with a mixture of mythic and historical battle scenes, situated on the north side of the agora, the ancient Athenian marketplace. Sometimes Stoicism, or the Stoic school, is therefore just called ‘The Stoa’ or even the philosophy of ‘The Porch’.
Like their hero Socrates, but unlike the other formal schools of Athenian philosophy, the Stoics met out in the public marketplace, on this porch, where anyone could listen to them debate. Here Zeno vigorously paced up and down as he lectured, which we’re told kept the porch clear of people slouching. The expression ‘Stoic philosophy’ has therefore been taken to suggest something like a ‘philosophy of the street’, a philosophy for ordinary people, not locked-up in the proverbial ‘ivory towers’ of academia. Indeed, until recently, the Stoics were rather neglected on most university degree courses.
Before the twentieth century, those who were exposed to philosophy would likely have read the Stoics. In the twentieth century, though, philosophers not only lost interest in Stoicism but lost interest, more generally, in philosophies of life. It was possible, as my own experience demonstrates, to spend a decade taking philosophy classes without having read the Stoics and without having spent time considering philosophies of life, much less adopting one. (Irvine, 2009, p. 222)
Nevertheless, Stoicism has grown in popularity since the 1970s, partly because of the success of CBT.
In the ancient world, as we’ve seen, Stoicism was, from the outset and for nearly five subsequent centuries, one of the most influential and highly-regarded schools of philosophy. We’re told the Athenians greatly admired Zeno, granting him the keys to their city and building a bronze statue of him, in stark contrast to the fate that befell his predecessor, Socrates. They also reputedly voted in favour of an official decree honouring his exemplary ‘virtue and self-discipline’, with a golden crown and a tomb, built at public expense. This public declaration praised his many years devoted to philosophy in Athens, and described him as a good man in every respect, ‘exhorting to virtue and self-discipline those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching’ (Lives, 7.10).
The example set by Zeno’s conduct was important to the Stoics because they considered emulation of the wise and good to be the best way to learn philosophy. He initially followed the simple and austere way of life adopted by the Cynic philosophers, which exerted an important influence over Stoicism. As a result, his reputation for self-mastery (enkrateia) apparently became quite proverbial; people were sometimes praised for having the self-discipline of a Zeno. Cynics were known for enduring physical hardship, and Zeno himself was certainly described as a philosopher toughened by the elements. For instance an unnamed ancient poet wrote of him:
The cold of winter and the ceaseless rain
Come powerless against him: weak the dart
Of the fierce summer sun or racking pain
To bend that iron frame. He stands apart
Unspoiled by public feast and jollity:
Patient, unwearied night and day doth he
Cling to his studies of philosophy. (Lives, 7.27)
Where Zeno departed from his initial allegiance to Cynicism, however, was in his greater emphasis on the need to supplement their tough philosophical lifestyle, their ‘Ethics’, with the study of ‘Physics’ and ‘Logic’. As we’ll see, the Cynics also viewed all external things as ultimately ‘indifferent’, whereas the Stoics adopted a more subtle position, allowing themselves to value certain conventional things, while retaining a sense of detachment from them. Nevertheless, the Stoics were particularly concerned with applying philosophy to everyday challenges and especially with the classic Socratic question: How does someone live a good life? They saw themselves as veritable warriors of the mind and would perhaps condemn modern academic philosophy as mere ‘sophistry’ rather than a true art of living.
| || |
Key idea: Philosophy as a way of life
It may come as a surprise to realize that ancient philosophy was a fairly practical business. It often emphasized training in psychological exercises or the adoption of a demanding lifestyle, a precursor in some ways of Christian monastic practices. Some philosophers, most notably the Cynics, even turned their nose up at theoretical debate or abstract speculation as a diversion from the true business of cultivating practical wisdom and self-mastery.
The Cynics ridiculed Plato and his followers for their ‘Academic’ style of philosophy. They believed voluntary poverty and endurance of hardship were better philosophical teachers than books and lectures. Zeno was initially a Cynic, although he studied Logic and Physics as well. So in this regard Stoicism can be seen as somewhere between the Academics and Cynics. Theoretical studies, such as Physics and Logic, have some value but only insofar as they actually contribute to the goal of living wisely.
Indeed, ancient philosophers, especially Cynics, were recognizable by their attire and behaviour. Cynics begged for food or lived on cheap and simple meals of lupin seeds or lentil soup, and drank only water. They dressed only in a cheap cloak, made of coarse undyed wool, which they doubled over for warmth in winter, carried everything they owned in a small knapsack, bore an ashwood staff, and bedded down on simple straw mats, often sleeping rough in public buildings. Some of Zeno's followers considered the Cynic lifestyle a “shortcut to virtue”, although the later Stoics were typically less austere. Musonius tells his students that as long as they have the inner virtues of a philosopher: ‘You won’t need to don an old cloak, go around without a shirt, have long hair, or behave eccentrically’, like Cynics (Lectures, 16). Elsewhere, however, he advises students to go shirtless and barefoot, which s...