“I’m always ready to die. If now, I am ready to die. If, after a short time, I
now dine because it is the
dinner-hour; after this I will
then die. How? Like a man
who gives up what belongs to
another,without regret,without resistance,without bitterness.” From Discourses,by Epictetus
The above passage shows us how Epictetus treated death from his stoic perspective.
The bitter truth is, indifference,which the core-value of STOICISM, really is a power.
When selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption
of certain attitudes, it facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living.
Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.
If we can’t always go to our philosophers for an understanding of Stoicism, then where can we go?
One place to start is the Urban Dictionary.
Check out what this crowdsourced online
reference to slang gives as the definition of a ‘stoic’:
~stoic~Someone who does not care about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about.
Stoics do have emotions, but only for the
things in this world that really matter.
They are the most real people alive.
Picture this scene with a stoic; A group of kids are sitting on a porch. Stoic walks
Kid – ‘Hey man, you are an old faggot an you suck!’
Stoic – ‘Good for you.’
Stoic keeps going,unperturbed.~
You’ve got to love the way the author manages to make mention of a porch in there, because Stoicism has its root in the word stoa, which is the Greek name for what today we would call a porch.
Actually, we’re more likely to call it a portico, but the ancient Stoics used it as a kind of porch, where they would hang out and talk about enlightenment
The Greek scholar Zeno is the founder,
and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius the most famous practitioner, while the Roman statesman Seneca is probably the most eloquent and entertaining.
But the real hero of Stoicism, most
Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.
He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match.
He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words.
These are the only words we know today
as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments.
Among those whom Epictetus taught
directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic
philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).
Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour.
One of these is the late US Navy Admiral James Stockdale.
A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary
confinement, and all other manner of torture.
His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side.
He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their
most dire. Especially then.
He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.
Stockdale wrote a lot about Epictetus, in speeches and memoirs and essays, but if you want to travel light (and, really, what Stoic doesn’t?), the best thing you could take with you is a speech he gave
at King’s College London in 1993, published as Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993).
That subtitle is important. Epictetus once
compared the philosopher’s lecture room to a hospital, from which the student should walk out in a little bit of pain.
‘If Epictetus’s lecture room was a hospital,’ Stockdale writes, ‘my prison was a laboratory – a laboratory of human behaviour.
I chose to test his postulates against the demanding real-life challenges of my laboratory.
And as you can tell, I think he passed with flying colours.’
~‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate’~
Stockdale rejected the false optimism proffered by mainstream religions, because he knew, from direct observation, that false hope is how you went insane in that prison.
The Stoics themselves believed in gods, but ultimately those resistant to religious belief can take their Stoicism the way
they take their Buddhism, even if they can’t buy into such concepts as karma or reincarnation.
What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible
human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of his own choice.’
Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it.
This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not
even you yourself.’
We do ourselves an immense favour when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.
Another shrewdly resourceful Stoic mind-hack is what William B Irvine – in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)– has given the name ‘negative visualisation’.
By keeping the very worst that can
happen in our heads constantly, the Stoics tell us, we immunise ourselves from the dangers of too much so-called ‘positive thinking’, a product of the
mind that believes a realistic accounting of the world can lead only to despair.
Only by envisioning the bad can we truly appreciate the good; gratitude does not arrive when we take things for granted.
It’s precisely this gratitude that leaves us content to cede control of what the world
has already removed from our control anyway.
How did we let something so eminently
understandable become so grotesquely
How did we forget that that dark passage is really the portal to transcendence?
Many will recognise in these principles the general shape and texture of cognitive- behavioral therapy (CBT).
Indeed, Stoicism has been identified as a kind of proto-CBT. Albert Ellis, the US psychologist who founded an early
form of CBT known as Rational Emotive
Behaviour Therapy (REBT) in 1955, had read the Stoics in his youth and used to prescribe to his patients Epictetus’s maxim that ‘People are disturbed not by things but by their view of things.’
‘That’s actually the “cognitive model of
emotion” in a nutshell,’ Donald Robertson tells us, and he should certainly know, as a therapist who in 2010 wrote a book on CBT with the subtitle ‘Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy’.
This simplicity and accessibility ensure that Stoicism will never be properly embraced by those who prefer the abstracted and esoteric in their
In the novel A Man in Full (1998),
Tom Wolfe gives Stoicism, with perfect
plausibility, to a semi-literate prison inmate.
This monologue of Conrad Hensley’s may be stilted, but there’s nothing at all suspect about the sentiment behind it.
When asked if he is a Stoic, Conrad replies: ‘I’m just reading about it, but I
wish there was somebody around today, somebody you could go to, the way students went to Epictetus.
Today people think of Stoics – like, you
know, like they’re people who grit their teeth and tolerate pain and suffering.
What they are is, they’re serene and confident in the face of anything you can throw at them.’
Marcus Aurelius started each day telling himself: ‘I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people’
Which leads us naturally to ask just what it was that was thrown at them.
We’ve already noted that Epictetus had the whole slavery thing going on, so
he checks out.
So does Seneca, in spite of what many have asserted – most recently the UK
classicist Mary Beard in an essay for the New York Review of Books that asks: ‘How Stoical Was Seneca?’ before providing a none-too- approving answer. What Beard’s well-informed and otherwise cogent essay fails to allow for is
just how tough it must have been for Seneca – tubercular, exiled, and under the control of a sadistically murderous dictator – no matter what access he sometimes had to life’s luxuries.
It was Seneca himself who said that ‘no one has condemned wisdom to poverty’, and only an Ancient Greek Cynic would try to deny this.
Besides, Seneca would have been the first to tell you, as he told a correspondent in one of his letters: ‘I am not so shameless as to undertake to
cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you,just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.’
Marcus Aurelius lay ill in that hospital, too.
As beneficiary of the privileges of emperor, he also endured the struggles and stresses of that very same position, plus a few more besides.
I know better than to try to improve on the following accounting, provided in Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life:
~He was sick, possibly with an ulcer. His family life was a source of distress: his wife appears to have been unfaithful to him, and of the at least 14 children she bore him, only six survived. Added to
this were the stresses that came with ruling an empire. During his reign, there were numerous frontier uprisings, and Marcus often went personally to oversee campaigns against upstart tribes. His own officials – most notably, Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria – rebelled against
him. His subordinates were insolent to him, which insolence he bore with ‘an unruffled temper’.
Citizens told jokes at his expense and were not punished for doing so. During his reign, the empire also experienced plague, famine, and natural disasters such as the earthquake at Smyrna.
Ever the strategist, Marcus employed a trusty technique in confronting the days that comprised such a life, making a point to tell himself at the start of each one of them: ‘I shall meet with
meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.’ He could have been different about it – he could have pretended
things were just hunky-dory, especially on those days when they really were, or seemed to be. But how, then, would he have been prepared to angle both into the wind and away from it – adapting,
always, to fate’s violently vexing vicissitudes?~
Where would that have left him when the weather changed?
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….©Profarms’ Random Thoughts®
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….©Profarms’ Random Thoughts®