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Stoicism: a timeless life philosophy

TRANSLATED BY BLANDINE LANGLET

The loss of a relative, an incurable illness, a traumatic experience… these are all unfortunate events that can happen in life and that seem to be standing in the way between you and your pursuit of happiness. Happiness, this supreme state often considered the ultimate purpose of human life… Is it a sweet utopia or an actual accessible state? Many philosophies tend to agree with the second option. Though Buddhism is gaining worldwide popularity, it is not the only model presenting the peace of mind – also known as “ataraxia” – as an end. We have inherited “happiness schools” from Ancient Greece, such as Epicureanism, Aristotelianism or stoicism. The latter provides rational and reasonable answers that serve to explain the “unfortunate events” occurring in our existence. The lessons to be learned are growing more and more each year.

Stoicism was born in ancient Greece and developed itself for almost six centuries through three main movements: ancient Stoicism, middle Stoicism and new or imperial Stoicism with, among others, Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (first and second century A.D.). The only complete works about stoicism available to us stem from that last movement. We will focus on this particular movement in this article. In this vast philosophical current, happiness is defined in the negative: it consists in the ataraxia, that is to say the absence of any soul trouble or serenity disruption. It is a eudemonistic philosophy that defines happiness as the natural end of  human existence and wisdom as a condition to reach it.

Though Buddhism is the philosophy with the largest number of followers in the world today, a discreet stoic society exists. This community appeared in October 2012 in the United Kingdom, during a workshop organized in the University of Exeter. Its founders, who manage the website, are seven lecturers and psychotherapists who passionately study this ancient philosophy together. In 2015, they will be organizing the fourth annual Stoic Week, an international event open to all. The participants are invited to follow stoic practices for seven days by applying them to the modern world. Over the week, the lessons uploaded online allow them to comprehend the basic principles of stoicism. The scope is to realize the potential benefits that may stem from our application of this way of life to our everyday life, and to determine its relevance on a daily basis.

THE BENEFITS OF STOICISM

Whatever the unfortunate events occurring in our lives are, stoicism helps us accept them and get over them. It is a real therapeutic philosophy. A Stoic never feels sorry about himself, nor does he allow his feelings to undermine his ability to reason. Epictetus, a Stoic and an emancipated slave, is a true role model. One day, his master had fun twisting his lame leg with a torture device. When the philosopher calmly told him that he would break his leg, the inevitable happened. “I said you would break my leg, now it is broken.” Epictetus coldly said afterwards. As a Stoic, he was not upset because of his misfortune. A Stoic remains serene in all circumstances, whether he endures physical or mental pain.

The stoic ethics are based on simple precepts that are still very efficient today. Epictetus explained the importance of determining what depends on us and what does not: “What depends on us are our judgments, our tendencies, our desires, our aversions; in a word, everything that is an operation of our mind. What does not depend on us are the body, wealth, honors, high positions in office; in a word, things that are not productions of our minds.

If something does not depend on us, there is no use in worrying. On the contrary; according to the stoic logic, we have to overcome this sadness. The whole stoic ethic is about the correct use of reason that should allow us to be in control of our impressions, in all circumstances.

STOICISM: AN ANSWER TO THE CRISIS?

Let’s take a more contemporary example. The economic crisis is an external event that does not depend on us but that can bring some hardships, such as layoffs, lower purchasing power or additional stress. The two other important principles of stoicism are the detachment to the external world and the motto “hold on and hold off”. A Stoic, as a victim of the economic crisis, should admit his poverty, endure the external hardships and eventually accept his condition. Indeed, he does not have the responsibility of carrying external misfortune, so why would he desire a happiness as vain as an utopist? As Sisyphus shows in The Myth of Sisyphus, we can only be happy by living in the moment, without looking for a beyond reach outcome to our tragic destiny.

Stoicism is not only an answer to the crisis, but also to every unfortunate hardship we can meet in our lives, which definitely makes it a universal and timeless philosophy.

STOICISM AND LOVE

Regarding the question of romantic love, also timeless, stoicism considers this passion just like any other. What is a passion? A natural inclination disrupting the soul and corrupted by the influence of social environment. Stoics consider that our habits and education are persuasive of some things, for example thinking that pain necessarily bad. Reason has to be a filter which accepts (or does not accept) passion and regulates it. It is therefore possible to be stoic and to be in love, but only if this love remains under a certain control.

The following Epictetus speech in his Manual is still modern and relevant today:

When anything happens to you, remember to turn to yourself and ask what faculty you have to deal with it. If you see a beautiful man or a beautiful woman, find continence in yourself; if trouble vexes you, find endurance. If there is ribaldry, find patience. If you master this habit, your impressions will not carry you away. Never say, ‘I lost it’, but rather, ‘I gave it back’. Has your child died? He was given back. Has your wife died? She was given back.

Stoicism finds its applications even in seduction, with the control of impulses that are too strong, or in the death of a loved one, with the acceptance of the course of the events.

PREJUDICES ON STOICISM

Despite clear teaching, the term “stoic” is today subjected, just like “epicurean” is, to many prejudices. If the Epicurean is far from the original definition of the bon vivant, the Stoic is far from being a man with no emotions. Let’s take a look at the most common prejudices.

A Stoic is insensitive, knows no emotion and is totally apathetic. If a Stoic really has feelings, he choose not to give in to them as long as there is a threat to his lucidity. He rationalizes his passions. It is absolutely possible for a Stoic to love as long as he maintains control in terms of how he represents it. This means that a Stoic will not be affected by the loss of his wife because he has somehow already considered this loss. Again, he does not control his destiny, only his opinion concerning said destiny. Likewise with physical pain; he experiences it, but its feel is different from the common opinion because he does not see it as a bad thing.

Credit Modernstoicism

Credit Modernstoicism

A Stoic lets things be; he lets himself die if he is sick. Once again, this is inaccurate regarding stoicism. If a Stoic is ill, he calls a doctor to get medical care, because he has the power to do so (it depends on him): health is preferable over physical disorders. However, if the illness is incurable, the Stoic accepts it and will live his last days peacefully.

Stoicism is a selfish philosophy, not caring about the common well-being. It is true that the Stoic’s first concern is his own balance, and that love of people does not occupy the philosophy’s first place. However, this selfishness is relative because the Stoic remains a Man, and the Man is sociable by nature. There is no contradiction between philanthropy and stoicism. The philanthropy of a Stoic is simply lucid and does not consist in surrendering himself to others. But nobody would need philanthropy while being a Stoic.

CONCLUSION

Stoicism, in theory, is a philosophical system which considers reason to be the cure the sickness that is the pain of life. It is indeed thanks to this reason, specific to the human race, that Man can attain happiness (defined by the ataraxia) in all circumstances. Whether he is a slave or a master, coming from the working-class or from the upper class, the Stoic is always in control of his impressions, that is, of the way he looks at things. He sees them as they are and is aware of their temporality. When he gives in to his passions, it is always with reason.

In practice, do the stoic principles really lead to a better life? According to statistics gathered by the Stoic Week 2013 team, among the 2400 participants, 56% said they have become wiser and kinder. Still among these 2400 people, 14% have noticed an increase in the satisfaction of their lives, 9% an increase of positive emotions (joy or optimism) and 11% a decrease of negative emotions. The results may seem low, but in the space of one week, they are significant. Indeed, you cannot become stoic in only one week. Several years are required to approach the ideal level of wisdom advocated by this philosophy. However, what is important is that in seven days, some people are experiencing results. Over several months or years, positive results would probably be more important. Still, the surprisingly modern works of Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius are a perfect extension of this article for those who are most interested in stoicism.

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