Disclaimer: What follows is a simplification and purely my own interpretation, I am an amateur on the subject of philosophy, like everything else I purport to know anything about.
I have come to be of the opinion as I have grown older and possibly wiser that in order to make the most of one’s brief time in this world, and to live a meaningful life with the fewest possible regrets, a framework is required through which to filter the multitude of sensory inputs we are constantly exposed to so as to discern that which is essential to optimal living from that which is not.
The framework readily available to and exploited by most is organised religion. Despite the religious overtones of my previous submission I am yet to find God and am not inclined to merely “go through the motions”, although I am an eternal searcher. In the interim philosophy has proved to be beneficial. Now the word philosophy tends to conjure up images of reclusive, white bearded fellows pondering the meaning of existence and nature of the universe, and while that may be a perfectly noble pursuit I am primarily interested in something which can provide solutions to problems of a practical nature, a philosophy for everyday life you might say. The ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism meets the requirements.
Stoicism was founded in Athens in the third century BC by Zeno, with significant development occurring under his successors Cleanthes and Chrysippus. Interesting point to note, although possibly of no significance, is that all three were natives of Anatolia. Little survives of the teachings of the early Stoics, it is known that they considered themselves the inheritors of the legacy of Socrates who is referenced often in what Stoic sources are available to us, unfortunately I am unable to provide an opinion on this being unfamiliar with Socrates.
Most of what we know of Stoicism comes from the three “Roman Stoics”, Seneca, Epictetus and (Emperor) Marcus Aurelius. There was another, less celebrated (in modern times) Roman Stoic of whom we have some account, Musonius Rufus. Musonius lectured on philosophy in Rome, one of his students being Epictetus who himself went on to teach, and Marcus Aurelius was in turn influenced by Epictetus making numerous references to him in his personal notes known to us as the Meditations. There is an identifiable common thread running through the ideas of these men, and Seneca.
Stoicism had been the dominant philosophical school in the Roman Empire (the competition being the Epicureans, the Guardian readers of the classical world), the middle and upper classes having had a fascination for all things Greek. It should not come as a surprise philosophy was a popular pursuit for those of an intellectual persuasion, the Roman religion consisting of the simple offering of sacrifices with the aim of ingratiating oneself to the Gods and receiving favourable treatment in return. Stoicism went into terminal decline following the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, there is evidence that Stoicism had some influence on early Christian thought, however that is beyond the scope this essay. I will just say that you will have some exposure to Stoic thinking if you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The main Stoic texts are Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the essays and letters of Seneca, and the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus all of which have continued to be circulated and highly regarded ever since having been written. They can be appreciated without the context of the overall philosophy, containing as they do the philosophers own insights and advice for living a good life along with the core Stoic principles.
The dichotomy of control
The main thrust of Stoic philosophy is summed up rather succinctly in the opening paragraph of the Enchiridion (the short book of sayings attributed to Epictetus, collated by a student of his):
“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 own actions”.
Think about this for a moment. I have read that piece of text hundreds of times (every day on waking) and the power of this simple concept still amazes me. We are not in control of external events which enter into the sphere of our awareness, only our reaction to them and it is here that we should focus our efforts, with ourselves, externals being indifferent whether it be winning the lottery or even one’s own death. If your peace of mind is dependent on events outside of your control going your way then you are setting yourself up for disappointment and internalising this, according to the Stoics, is “living according to our nature” and the only path to happiness.
Musonius Rufus put it thus: “of the things that exist, God has put some in our control, others not in our control. In our control He has put the noblest and excellent part by reason of which He is Himself happy, the power of using our impressions. For when this is correctly used, it means serenity, cheerfulness, constancy. But all other things He has not put in our control. Therefore we ought to become of like mind with God and dividing things in like manner, we ought in every way to lay claim to the things that are in our control.” Marcus Aurelius wrote: “you have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” and Seneca: “We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of externals.”
Once you accept this undeniable truth it logically follows that “all disturbances arise solely from the opinions within us” (Marcus Aurelius) and “men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things” (Epictetus). What is suggested here is that if an event is outside of your control it has no power to disturb you, it being neither good nor bad. It is you who assigns a value judgement to the event, you have an opinion with regards to it and this opinion is under your control…or at least can be, with practice. “Impressions, striking a person’s mind as soon as he perceives something within range of his senses, are not voluntary or subject to his will, they impose themselves on people’s attention almost with a will of their own. But the act of assent which endorses these impressions is voluntary and a function of the human will” (Epictetus).
Epictetus gives some advice on practical application (for Stoicism is a philosophy of action), “Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing.””.
You may soon find yourself deviating from the path without an awareness of sensory impressions and your reactions to them, some of which will be very subtle and deeply rooted. This is why the Stoic develops a habit of constant, vigilant awareness of him/herself. As Musonius Rufus put it “to relax the mind, is to lose it” and Epictetus said “when walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind”. Marcus has slightly different advice (for himself) with “confine yourself to the present”. This constant attention is the foundation upon which further practice is built and brings to mind (my mind at least) the Delphic maxim of “know thyself”.
Epictetus then advises us in the Enchiridion to disarm harsh impressions by saying “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.”. He elaborates in the Discourses “Instead of automatically assenting to these impressions, however, our wise man spurns and rejects them, because there is nothing there that need cause him any fear. And this, they say, is how the mind of the wise man differs from the fool’s: the latter believes that impressions apparently portending pain and hardship when they strike his mind really are as they seem, so he approves them and accepts that he should fear them as if this were self-evident. But the wise man, soon regaining his colour and composure, reaffirms his support of the view he’s always had about such impressions – that they are not in the least to be feared, but are only superficially and speciously frightening”. Marcus Aurelius expresses similar sentiments with “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”. Once you have determined the veracity of the impression go on to analyse whether it is something which is in your own control or not as described in the previous section.
Citizens of the world
An element of Stoicism I find problematic as an ethnonationalist (or “Nazi” as some of our more emotional fellow posters prefer), which I similarly find problematic with Christianity, is it’s cosmopolitanism where a “brotherhood of man” takes precedence over the family and the nation.
“The world is my country, and my country is the world” – Seneca
Imagine concentric circles representing areas of moral concern, starting with the innermost circle of self and expanding outwards to the ultimate circle representing humanity. Of course we are all part of humanity and therefore have a duty to our fellow man, however, you do not reach the outer circles by ignoring the inner circles, which are your primary duty. At the present time my inner circles, family and people (as for civilisation and culture, these are natural expressions of a particular people and therefore to assign them their own circles would be redundant), are under threat hence this is the current extent of my obligations to the exclusion of all else. Do I fail the Stoic purity test? I can live with that.
A convenient consequence of seeing oneself only as belonging to a brotherhood of man is that it is such a nebulous concept you are effectively absolved of having any real responsibility to anybody.
Perhaps Marcus Aurelius may have agreed to a certain extent, writing Meditations whilst on a military campaign against the Germanic tribes encroaching on Roman territory (who, as we all know, eventually succeeded in overrunning the Western Roman Empire and ushering in the “Dark Ages” in Europe) and his persecution of Christians possibly can be interpreted as a (ultimately futile) defence of the traditions of Rome.
The deep stuff
Years ago as a meditation enthusiast I had an interesting experience. Everyday I would sit dispassionately observing my thoughts as they thrashed about, often asking myself if I was wasting my time. One day as I sat this eerie sense of calm descended, as if the agitated thoughts were waves on an ocean and I had sunk just below the choppy waters of the surface to find myself in unfamiliar territory, underneath the waves were meandering currents, less erratic than the waves above but deceptively powerful. It occurred to me that the ephemeral surface activity is what I identify myself with, my personality, so who or what am I without these thoughts? What lies in the immense dark depths below?
I suspect there may be similar insights to be gleaned by the earnest Stoic. It seems plausible that once you have your opinions, pursuits, desires and aversions under a certain level of control, that is the things that differentiate us as individuals and make up our unique psychology, you may inevitably be left asking the question “who or what am I really, what is my nature?”. I can only speculate as to what the answer may be.
Hopefully I have done the subject justice. Should you wish to pursue Stoicism further, copies of the core texts are available for free in Kindle format on Amazon, or inexpensively in book form. Some free online resources are listed below:
I highly recommend the blog Traditional Stoicism, starting with The Path of the Prokopton Series. There is also the Reddit Stoicism FAQ, however, under no circumstances engage with the retards on the message boards! You have been warned.
© Zombie_Ramboz 2018