‘He who is brave is free’ – Seneca
STOICISM is an ancient Greek philosophy started by Zeno of Citium in about 300 BC. It was taken up with much enthusiasm in ancient Rome, notably by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, whose writings have been handed down through the ages and are seen by many philosophers as timeless.
Stoicism lays great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature. Put simply, it is guidance on how to live our lives, how to see meaning in them and how to react (or not) to the trials and challenges of existence. Today we are fixated with the upheavals of Covid and the attempts at total control and domination of societies by a power-hungry elite. Aside from Covid, which is simply a means to an end, this is really nothing new when looked at in a historical context.
Stoicism asserts that the pursuit of virtue is the route to ‘Eudaimonia’, a state of living that achieves happiness. Happiness, however, is not pursued for its own sake, but is a by-product of pursuing four cardinal virtues: self-control, courage, justice and wisdom. Stoicism offers a strong affirmative vision of what life is for: living by reason. Reason calls for honesty, kindness, humility and devotion to the greater good. It calls for helping others in whatever ways are available. Instead of living to satisfy desires, Stoics regard themselves as meant to function as parts of the whole which has the potential to create great joy and inner harmony.
We all go through life reacting directly to events and happenings in the world. But this is an illusion. What we are in fact reacting to is our judgement and opinions of these events, not the events themselves. Stoics seek to become conscious of these judgements, to find the irrationality and nonsense in them and to choose responses in a more considered manner. Events elicit very different reactions in every individual, which testifies to the truth that what we are governed by is our judgement of a situation and not the situation itself.
One key element of Stoic philosophy is that we should stake our well-being on what we can control and let go of things that we cannot. We generally can’t control events, the opinions or behaviour of others, or whatever else is outside ourselves. ‘Externals’, as they are known, include money, fame, possessions, successes of one sort or another; the aim of a practising Stoic is to regard them with detachment. That is not to say they don’t care about these things, but they regard them as preferences and not as essentials, for the simple reason that they can be taken away from us at any time.
Intuition is something we all possess to a greater or lesser extent. We look out from our inner selves and see the world as it appears to us. But what we observe can lead us to a long line of deceptions. Trying to look at life from a different viewpoint, for instance by comparing events to the scale of the world, the universe, or of time, or seeing them as if they were looked at from far away can give a whole new impression on things and can encourage humility when a more balanced view of our place in creation is considered.
The fear of death is something that Stoics work to overcome. ‘Memento Mori’ – remember death – plays a big part in their attitudes. They regard mortality as another source of perspective and inspiration. Accepting that existence has an end puts daily life into a new ennobling light and helps many realise that today really is all we have and that worrying about the future is futile. People who are told they have only so long to live often experience a profound appreciation for life in the moment. Far better to have that same degree of appreciation without being told your days are numbered.
Adversity is something that Stoics attempt to tackle objectively. Of course they don’t seek out pain or hardship, but they seek a mindset that isn’t thrown into chaos when bad things happen, as they undoubtedly will. Setbacks and disappointments can produce great achievements, build character and provide opportunities for personal growth. Who would have wished for the events of the last three years? But for those of us who have been resistant to the evil goings-on in the world, who could argue that we have not become stronger, wiser, more tolerant, more understanding and yes, more resolute in our attempts to defeat those who would enslave us?
Stoicism is a practice to be pursued as best one can. There is no finishing line. It is hard work because many of our judgements, and the fears and desires that follow them, are habitual and hard to change and are constantly reinforced by our surroundings, our conventions, those in authority over us and the prevailing media, which is governed by people with vested interests. Like all philosophies and religions, no one person can ever get to the stage where they can claim to be a true ‘Stoic’. At most, they can only admit to trying one’s best and in these efforts they may well end up with a little less anxiety over what they can’t control, perhaps more patience with those who irritate them, a calmer approach when things go wrong and a greater willingness to question those in authority. Not to mention a more courageous spirit when confronting evil. After all, if you’ve conquered the fear of death, the dastardly deeds of a globalist cabal shouldn’t scare you too much.
In conclusion: Does a philosophy over 2,000 years old (and which has very many similarities to Christianity) have a relevance today? There is no doubt in my mind that it does, now just as much as ever.