By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.
In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags, and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.
In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”
There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.
So I converted.
I didn’t really know anything beyond the few brief paragraph in Turnbull’s introduction, so I basically stayed calm and acted kind–things I generally did anyway. Bad grade? No problem. Good grade? No biggie. Need a pencil? Here.
Then, I fell in love. All of a sudden. And the way my idée fixe glanced at me became way more important than staying calm and giving away pencils like a selfless pencil savior. Stoical reserve doesn’t suit teenage hormones.
So it fell to the background.
Then, one day, after a breakup in college about four years later, I went on a Stoic binge. I ventured to the deserted philosophy stacks with reference numbers in hand, and there, buried in the dusty tombs and dim light, I found shelves of Stoicism. Eureka!
I loaded my arms with the lofty texts, plopped them on the counter, smiling with a smug sense of, “Yes, I’m the guy who reads those weird books,” and thrust my I.D. across the table.
“Um,” said the petite blonde freshman girl, biting her lip, “you have some overdue books.”
In time, I retrieved my horde, including William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, a recent pop-philosophy book that makes a serious and skillful translation of Stoic philosophy to everyday life.
Soon, I read the Stoic pantheon to supplement the practical advice in Irvine’s book: Epictetus, Seneca, Cato, Marcus Aurelius, etc. I also read Don’t Worry, Be Stoic by Peter J. Vernezze, similar to Irvine’s book, but a little thinner, split into fairly self-sufficient chapters.
I found a vigorous and beautiful system of beliefs, but when I mentioned Stoicism, I often got dubious glances and quizzical looks: either people didn’t know the word or attached it to emotional repression, dismissing it accordingly.
Yet the 2,200-year old philosophy had a lot to say.
Stoicism doesn’t set out to repress emotions; it seeks to escape their grip through
proper education. As Epictetus, a core Stoic figure from the First Century A.D., said, “Only the educated are free.”
Stoics realized that we control few things. Trains arrive late or break down. Love letters receive no reply. We loose our jobs, then our money. Our parents die. Many Stoics believed events follow a natural law, and the world unfolds like a machine, governed by regular, immutable laws. To them, this natural law was like a Stoic God, above the polytheistic pantheon at the time.
Thus, since we can’t control most events, we should align our own will to them. After all, we can control our reactions. As Epictetus said:
True instruction is this: —to learn to wish that each thing should come to pass as it does. And how does it come to pass? As the Disposer has disposed it. Now He has disposed that there should be summer and winter, and plenty and dearth, and vice and virtue, and all such opposites, for the harmony of the whole.
As Epictetus said, quoted in his Handbook, “Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot.” We can choose a path that rejects the natural law or one that accepts it. A Stoic chooses the latter, no matter how “painful” it may be. He or she knows, with a tranquil smugness that, it’s the “reasoned,” correct answer, and as the pain fades, tranquility and harmony will remain.
This is Stoic calm, or apatheia in the Greek, meaning “without passion.”
Moreover, since our will remains under our control, no one can take it away, unlike our wealth, fame or relationships. According to the Stoic ideal, one could be a hated beggar in the street, but as long as they maintain virtue–bound in will–he or she is rich and happy.
Boethius wrote the Consolations of Philosophyalong these lines: despite losing everything–his respect, his power, his money–he held on to virtue and found joy within, even as he awaited execution from behind bars, a model Stoic indeed.
Lastly, since were’re all cosmopolitans bound by the same natural laws, Stoics should behave with vigorous morality in all cases. In one of his letters Seneca, a Roman Stoic, describes the sun: it rises everyday, with the same graceful arc and burning haze, whether it’s hide behind clouds or not. Thus, Stoics should be moral, even when no one can tell.
But we all can’t be Boethius or the Sun. Taken by tenants alone, Stoicism is ruthless. While it does not repress passion, it does not honor it–indeed, it’s another obstacle to overcome to perfect the will. It also places rigorous–i.e., impossible–demands on our morality.
Yet Stoicism does provide a poignant picture of our condition and expresses rich alternatives to our modern obsession with production and material success. In particular, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations has beautiful observations, as when he writes in Book VI:
Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye, for it does happen. Keep yourself therefore, simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Reverence the gods, save men. Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighborly acts.
I took to carrying my copy of the Mediationsaround and would open to random pages
when something vexed me. I always found comfort in his prompts to pause and realize the “bigger” things in life.
Nerdy, yes, but effective.
I have since dropped the Stoical taboo against the passions and leave the Meditations on my bookshelf. But Stoicism has left me with a sense of duty and perspective. Tranquility is a sublime joy, especially within the din of the world.
As the posters gleaned from the Battle of Britain say, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”