Unpacking Stoicism

During the past few years I have been slowly consuming books on Stoicism. I was introduced to it by way of Tim Ferriss through his podcast The Tim Ferriss Show. I remember him talking about his love for Stoicism, providing quotes, and highlighting some of its principles. From these small interactions I always knew I liked Stoicism, but when asked about it I would consistently find myself stammering to explain it in an effectively concise way. By way of losing the faith of my fathers I have transitioned into a more secular mindset. Because of this I have found myself with more energy to pursue Stoicism more deeply; more as a philosophy to model my life after. In the beginning of my journey out of religion I related deeply to this quote from Dante:

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto I

I found myself in a dark forest without a trail to follow. Stoicism began to illuminate a path before me.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is the practice of taking seriously the difference between what we can and cannot master. It is about actively pursuing excellence and virtue, while being mindful of the impact our actions have on our fellow man, of which we are part of a “single great community.”1 Stoicism commonly refers to the practice of living in ‘accordance with nature’. This belief draws, in part, on willfully developing the “inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world.”1 This gift of reason is central to Stoicism and is sometimes referred to as the ‘divine spark’. This divine spark is part of each of us, we but need to nourish and develop it like a seed of a great tree.

Using reason allows us to conquer ourself, both mind and body. The famous Stoic Seneca said “there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” We are able to create our own universe with our reasoning mind whether for good, bad, or indifference. Most of the pain, anger, and despair that we face is embattled within our own thoughts. Anger outlasts hurt and “is to be avoided not for the sake of moderation but for the sake of sanity.”1 We have the ability to recognize that the source of much of our suffering occurs long after the initial hurt, and in many instances is repeated over and over unnecessarily.

Stoicism urges practitioners to use reason to subdue the passions and pleasures of the world and develop a lasting discipline over mind and emotions. This is not an indictment on happiness, joy, and bliss as many have incorrectly characterized Stoics like Spock from Star Trek. On a personal note, this call to discipline over mind fits well with mindfulness meditation. Meditation teaches you to be aware of your mind and the thoughts and emotions that appear before your consciousness, and to treat them as such, mere appearances on the landscape of consciousness.

Many of the Stoics spoke of its philosophy as one that was inherently useful as opposed to merely entertaining, as in an interesting conversation topic. Its end is the “practical one of curing souls, of bringing peace and order to the feverish minds of men pursuing the wrong aims in life. What we say should be of use, not just entertaining.”1 To take this charge seriously, Marcus Aurelius, one of the preeminent Stoics, and Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE, would even urge himself to give up reading in favor of actively tackling self-mastery and self improvement. His most famous book Meditations was not written to be consumed by anyone but himself. The book is a collection of his personal journals he kept as emperor mostly from the the theater of war. Knowing this makes his council and self-reflections much more powerful as he was solely writing to himself, attempting to raise his own level of self-mastery, without thought of anyone ever learning from his personal writings. Stoicism is a practical philosophy that encourages action over reflection.

As an FYI when I cite Meditations it will follow the numbering of each mediation such as 4.2. This is viewed as coming from the fourth meditation and is the second section.

Summum Bonum

The Stoics’ supreme ideal comes from the Greek word Arete or the Latin Virtus which differ slightly and are not at all captured by the english word virtue. Arete means ‘excellence’ or ‘goodness’. It is related to the word Aristos which means ‘the best’. It’s application can be summed up in the Army slogan, ‘be all that you can be’. “Plato says, arete is something you are always trying to achieve, but is always out of reach.”2 The Latin Virtus is described as “the sum of all the corporeal or mental excellences of man, strength, vigor; bravery, courage; aptness, capacity; worth, excellence, virtue.”3 Though these words can mean a variety of things, in most Stoic writing there is a consensus on the following four main virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.

According to the Stoics these characteristics were not intrinsic in humankind, but were needed to be cultivated. Seneca described his belief that consciousness was the divinely inspired “inner light of the spirit.”1 Using this inner light, along with logic and reason, Stoics resign themselves to a life striving to practice these characteristics through constant practice until they become a lasting disposition. To simplify, Stoics believe in cultivating wisdom (or moral insight), courage (the ability to act well under challenging circumstances), temperance (control our desires so we do not yield to excess), and justice (treating others with dignity and fairness).

Determinism by way of God or Randomness by way of the Universe

In letter XVI from Seneca to his friend Lucilius he writes:

“What help can philosophy be to me if there is such a thing as fate? What help can philosophy be if Deity is controlling it all? What help can it be if all is governed by chance?”1

Seneca

Underwhelmingly, Seneca responds by saying it does not matter if either of them be true, “we still need to practice philosophy.” He then admonishes Lucilius to “not allow your spiritual enthusiasm to cool off or fall away.” I was just as delighted as I had been underwhelmed to see him finish his letter with an incredible insight. “Natural desires are limited: those which spring from false opinion have nowhere to stop, falsity has no point of termination. When a person is following a track, there is an eventual end to it somewhere, but with wandering at large there is no limit. So give up pointless, empty journeys.” In short, it doesn’t really matter if God has a plan for you that is predetermined and it doesn’t matter if life is random. What matters is controlling what you can control; those things that have a beginning and an end, those things that come from nature. In this way I love Stoicism because it sidesteps the profound questions of the universe that do not have an answer and says those are “pointless”, focus on reality and your day to day encounter with life. Do as Marcus proclaims, “Life is short: make your gain from the present moment with right reason and justice. Keep sober and relaxed.”4.26

Marcus Aurelius did not believe in fate or destiny as it relates to making personal choices. He said, “Fate does not catch [a stoic] with his life unfulfilled.”3.8 A Stoic is mindful of the virtue that is required to deflect those things that are out of our control. In fact, he outright condemns those that wallow in the idea that their present or future self is a product of fate. He said:

You are old: don’t then let this directing mind of yours be enslaved any longer – no more jerking to the strings of selfish impulse, no more disquiet at your present or suspicion of your future fate.”

Marcus Aurelius Meditations2.2

In a similar position Marcus echos Seneca in providing an answer to determinism or free will, it doesn’t matter, it is a pointless exercise. Again, they urge us to recognize what we can and cannot control. Marcus interestingly tells us to “fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.”6.39 There are endless things that we cannot control, and those things Stoics ascribe to destiny or randomness, either way we should not suffer thinking about it. I imagine Stoics believe in fate or destiny in the same way the philosopher Heidegger uses the term throwness to describe our lot in life. We were helplessly born or thrown into some time, in some place, some gender, some race, some family, some religion, some nation, in some social class. When we become acutely aware that we exist, we catch ourselves already in the world with no escape. Why worry, it is pointless, but in a Stoic manner we must bare this thrownness with integrity, virtue, and genuine love for where you have been thrown.

In my opinion, Stoicism offers a more intellectually honest way of looking at the topic of determinism, free will, or partial providence. Marcus put it this way:

Either the compulsion of destiny and an order of no deviation, or a providence open to prayer, or a random welter without direction. Now if undeviating compulsion, why resist it? If a providence admitting of placation of prayer, make yourself worthy of divine assistance. If an ungoverned welter (state of general disorder), be glad that in such a maelstrom you have within yourself a directing mind of your own: if the flood carries you away, let it take your flesh, your breath, all else – but it will not carry away your mind.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations12.14

We do not know if life is deterministic, but if it is, don’t resist it. We aren’t sure if prayer works in the empirical sense. We understand prayer to be therapeutic and meaningful, but who knows if there is a personal god listening? If it is so, make yourself “worthy of divine assistance.” If we aren’t assisted by heaven and life is random, or we are thrown into existence without purpose, be grateful you have a “directing mind” to chose and to aspire, to lend a helping hand to your fellow friends and family, as Marcus said, “we are born for community.”5.16

Search, Practice and Revise

I found it deeply refreshing to read so many passages that were concerned with finding truth by being willing to modify or shed past beliefs. This sentiment was held by early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For example, Hugh B. Brown who was a member of the first presidency of the Church said at a devotional:

I hope you will develop the questing spirit. Be unafraid of new ideas for they are the stepping stones of progress. But you will respect, of course, the opinions of others… Now I have mentioned the freedom to express your thoughts, but I caution you that your thoughts and expressions must meet competition in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth must emerge triumphant. Only error needs to fear freedom of expression. Seek truth in all fields.

Hugh B. Brown 5

Another said:

The man who cannot listen to an argument which opposes his views either has a weak position or is a weak defender of it. No opinion that cannot stand discussion or criticism is worth holding. And it has been wisely said that the man who knows only half of any question is worse off than the man who knows nothing of it. He is not only one sided, but his partisanship soon turns him into an intolerant and a fanatic. In general, it is true that nothing which cannot stand up under discussion and criticism is worth defending.

James E Talmage 6

Marcus said:

If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.6.21

That is the type of mantra that I truly attempt to live by. I am more than enthusiastic to come to understand my thinking or beliefs may be incorrect, and I am eager to change them. Though it may be difficult to accept correction, I must remember to value truth over my own convictions. I believe that is the plight of most fundamental religionists, they value authority over truth. If my value system is ordered in that way I am opening myself up to living in my “own self-deception and ignorance.”

Knowledge can be found everywhere. It is through our diligence in using reason, being skeptical, and valuing truth over other competing virtues that we can obtain it. This process is continual. Each generation builds upon the one before. It was important to the Stoics to recognize the power of truth and knowledge, but to welcome new forms, always with the understanding that “truth lies upon for all” and “has not yet been monopolized.”1 In many ways, the religions of our day rely on the authoritative knowledge of the past without considering the present, or the future. They are attached to a governing dogma, anchored in an authoritative, unyielding past. The Stoics made it clear that “men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.” This line is another example of the defiance Stoicism places on human authority, and contributed to the reason why it died out as a philosophy after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. There is beauty, depth, and endless numbers of worldviews. It is our job to sort through the many truths of this world and be guided by the principles of truth over ignorance, self-deception, and unyielding dogma.

Stoicism is meant to be practiced. I personally felt a sting from Seneca’s rebuke of individuals who do not obtain repeated experience of practicing Stoicism. He says it is “disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. ‘Zeno said this’ and ‘Cleanthes said that.’” He twists the knife as he continues, “What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve others’ orders?” I took this to be hard because this in many ways describes me. I enjoy diving deep into topics, highlighting, taking notes, cross-referencing, etc. I do not believe I spend as much time as I need to practicing the philosophy as much as I enjoy learning about it. Seneca continues the frank talk, “This is why I look on people like this as a spiritless lot – the people who are forever acting as interpreters and never as creators, always lurking in someone else’s shadow.” Ouch.

This teaching from Seneca is an important concept to consider in this section of Search, Practice, and Revise. Essentially, we must learn and put into practice what we learn, then evaluate, and adjust. Of those things we can control, we must choose to act according to nature (as described above) regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and especially in step with burdensome influences others have on our life. As Marcus said, “the directing mind of each of us has its own sovereignty.”8.56 In this way, we must eliminate excuses and resist engaging solely in the entertainment value of philosophy but “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” (James 1:22) Seneca ended this lesson by saying:

No new findings will ever be made if we rest content with the findings of the past. Beside, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking. ‘But surely you are going to walk in our predecessors footsteps?’ Yes indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up.

Belief in God

Do Stoics believe in God? There are a variety of answers, and it depends on which passages of Stoicism are used and what you mean by God. Stoicism is found in Buddhism, Christianity and many schools of thought. In many passages Stoics declare belief in God or gods, but their description of these gods and the universe often differ in the way we think of God today in the Abrahamic religions. They tend to put more of an emphasis on using divinely gifted reason to live a good life, and that reason comes from something a Stoic would call God. As spoken of earlier from Marcus, whether life is filled with invincible order, hopeless indifference, or is providential, we must embrace reason and find gratitude in knowing we have “a certain ruling intelligence” to judge life itself and not rely on things out of our control. Because of this emphasis on personal development and not on a dogmatic adherence to the supernatural, Stoicism can be viewed as a large tent, one that can include many belief systems.

In lock step with the ideals of practicality and nature, the God of Stoicism is not an interventionist God. Marcus taught, “If the choice is yours, why do the thing? But if its another’s choice, what do you blame – atoms or gods? Either is madness. There is no blame.”8.17 It doesn’t really matter if something happens because of nature or if there was providential involvement, you still have to make a choice if it is yours to make. As an important point of clarification–If there was divine involvement, according to the Stoics, it wouldn’t be something miraculous or supernatural, it would happen according to nature. Stoics are not concerned with the particulars of situation outside their sphere of influence, and apparently their god isn’t either.

In an important example of a divergence from Mormon theology (and most interventionist God religions) is from a student of Epictetus who complained of a wounded leg and remarked, “am I then to have a maimed leg?” In response, Epictetus said, “slave, do you mean to arraign the universe for one wretched leg?” The idea that God concerns Himself with the minutiae of our affairs is antithetic to Stoicism. The personal God ascribed to by many religions is deeply concerned about us, down to the individual. A Mormon Apostle said, “We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked.”7 In a sort of beautiful contrast the Stoics do not think of God as something external, something “out there”, let alone anthropomorphic. Epictetus said, “You are a principle work, a fragment of God Himself, you have in yourself a part of Him … You bear God about with you, poor wretch, and know it not.”8

We each are constantly making choices. Focusing on the reasons why things happened (the past) the way they did, or why something didn’t happen (the past), or pleading with God to do something for you or someone you love (the future) doesn’t really help in the here and now. “Seek only to perfect this life you are living in the present, … live out the time remaining before your death calmly, kindly, and at peace with the god inside you.”12.3.2 Ruminating on the past and the future is “madness”, you must act according to your best judgement and in the present moment. The divinity and calm found within Stoicism is located in the present moment.

There are plenty of interesting parallels from Stoicism to Christianity. When describing the divine nature of the universe the Stoics preferred to use the word Logos. Logos can be interpreted as being “The Word of God”. Recall St John used Logos in chapter one of the New Testament to describe God, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In James 3:14 he echoes the sentiment to live in the present moment: “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the marrow. For what is your life? It is even as vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” Paul reminds us of the idea of Logos in Acts 17:28, “…For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” The main departure in these two systems is the idea of Logos. Stoic divinity is the whole universe including us. Christianity has a God who is external and separate from the universe and has defined characteristics.

Marcus Aurelius said “every man’s mind is god.”12.26 He also said that we are a “fragment of Zeus” which has been given to us to “guard and guide [us]. In each of us divinity is our mind and reason.”5.27 In these types of passages we can see Stoicism has an element of pantheism (Greek for “everything divine”). That is, God is the universe itself and therefore we are a part of the divine universe. This is a central element of identifying God with nature, and living according to nature. What makes us special is our ability to reason. According to Stoicism, this ability to reason is divine and this divinity is in each of us. This knowledge should influence our connection to other people. Marcus said, “If mind (consciousness) is common to us all, then we have reason also in common. If so, the universe is a kind of community. In what else could one say that the whole human race shares a common constitution?”4.4 In this way Stoicism unites us, as we share a commonality in having consciousness. And as Sam Harris is apt to say, consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.9

Stoics identify divine reason with the “soul of the world”. There is diversity of life and meaning but it exists in nature within a single unity or logos. Marcus said, “all things are mutually intertwined, and the tie is sacred…For there is both one Universe made up of all things and one God immanent in all things, and one Substance, and one Law, one Reason common to all intelligent creatures and one Truth.”7.9 This divine fabric is woven into each of us. I wondered if Stoics believed literally in this encircling logos. Marcus explained “I have not seen my own soul, but I honor it. So it is with the gods too.”12.28 Stoics do not claim to know something they cannot know, but they do honor to its teachings by believing deeply in the sovereignty of the individual and its “directing mind”, always “moving forward step by step.”1


Sources

  1. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Penguin, 2004.
  2. “What Is Arete? Virtue in Greek Philosophy – Definition of Arete.” Quatr.us Study Guides, Publisher Name Quatr.us Study Guides Publisher Logo, 2 Jan. 2018, quatr.us/greeks/arete-virtue-greek-philosophy.htm.
  3. Lewis, Charlton T. “A Latin Dictionary.” Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Α α,2005, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry.
  4. Church, LDS. “Heavenly Father’s Plan for Us.” Doctrine and Covenants 8, 1996, www.lds.org/manual/primary-6-old-testament/lesson-1?lang=eng.
  5. Brown, Hugh B. “Man and What He May Become – Hugh B. Brown.” BYU Speeches, speeches.byu.edu/talks/hugh-b-brown_man-may-become/.
  6. Library, Church History. “The Improvement Era: Volume 23.” Archive.org, London : F. Warne ; New York : Scribner, Welford, and Armstrong, 31 Dec. 1919, archive.org/details/improvementera2303unse/page/204.
  7. Uchtdorf, Dieter F. “The Love of God.” LDS.com, 2009, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/10/the-love-of-god?lang=eng
  8. Epictetus, P.E. Matheson. “The Discourses of Epictetus Including the Enchiridion.” The Discourses of Epictetus, 2000, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/dep/dep040.htm
  9. Harris, Sam. “The Mystery of Consciousness.” Sam Harris, 18 July 2018, samharris.org/the-mystery-of-consciousness/

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