Monthly Archives: May 2014

#3: Some Basic Stoic Traits

Marcus Aurelius was arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. He is also the author of one of the primary Stoic texts, the Meditations. As far as scholars can tell, it was intended as a private journal, in which he recorded his observations about the people around him, as well as advice to himself on how to deal with those people. As a result, the Meditations makes for choppy reading. Its entries are short and often repetitive.

For someone curious about what it means to behave in a Stoical manner, though, Book One of the Meditations is essential reading. In just a few pages, Marcus tells us what he has learned from the various mentors he has been blessed with in the course of his life.

One of these mentors was Stoic philosopher Maximus, who had mastered, Marcus says, “the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.” From him, Marcus learned the importance of maintaining “cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.”   So much for the common belief that the Stoics were glum, pessimistic, emotionless individuals! This was a man, says Marcus, about whom “everybody believed that in all that he did he never had any bad intention.”

From Catulus, another Stoic philosopher, Marcus learned not just to love his children but to love them “truly.” He also acquired useful strategies for dealing with other people. He learned, for example, that when a friend unjustly blamed him of something, he should not get angry but should instead try to restore that friend to “his usual disposition.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Rusticus taught him that when someone insulted him or wronged him, he should “be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled.” If you can’t tolerate the occasional vexatious behavior of friends, you probably don’t have any!

From Diognetus, the philosopher who introduced him to Stoicism, Marcus learned not to busy himself about “trifling things.”

From an unnamed tutor—he refers to this individual as his “governor”—Marcus learned “endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.”

From the philosopher Sextus, he learned “to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.” Sextus, he tells us, “never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion.” This makes Sextus sound like a wooden being, but this apparently wasn’t the case, inasmuch as Marcus also describes him as being “most affectionate.”

Although Sextus possessed considerable knowledge, he did not display it in an ostentatious manner, a trait that Marcus thought was admirable. Along similar lines, Marcus appreciated the subtle but effective manner in which the scholar Alexander corrected the speech of those he encountered. If they uttered “a barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression,” Alexander would not mock them; he instead attempted “dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used,” so the person could learn the correct usage without having been chided for misusing language.

Marcus’s mentors also taught him that, besides not flaunting his own knowledge, he should not begrudge others their knowledge. He notes that Antoninus Pius—who was both Marcus’s adoptive father and emperor of Rome just ahead of Marcus—was “most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts.”

From the philosopher Alexander, who was a Platonist rather than a Stoic, Marcus learned not to form the habit of telling people that he had no time for leisure, or of continually excusing neglect of loved ones by claiming that he had important business to attend to.

One last comment is in order: it was the practice of Stoicism that led Marcus to actively seek out mentors. A Stoic takes his life to be a work in progress, so he is grateful for any insights other people can provide him. Most people don’t seek mentors, for the simple reason that they don’t think they have any important lessons left to learn.

#2: What Stoicism Isn’t

Stoicism has gotten a bad rap. People think of the Stoics as emotionless beings—as grim, wooden individuals whose goal in life was to stand mutely and take whatever life could throw at them.

As we saw in my previous post, though, this perception is quite mistaken. When we read about the Stoics or read their works, what we encounter are individuals who can best be described as cheerful. They were very good at finding life’s sources of delight and savoring them to the fullest. They had friends and spouses. They were loved and in turn requited the love they received.

It wasn’t emotion that the Stoics were opposed to; it was negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear. They had nothing against positive emotions such as delight and even joy. Thus, the phrase joyful Stoic is not the oxymoron many people take it to be.

Although Stoicism was invented by Zeno of Citium, a Greek, the doctrine was subsequently modified by the Romans, including, most prominently, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus. The writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are not only readily available but can often be found at the top of Amazon’s ancient philosophy best-seller list. The writings of Musonius Rufus used to be difficult to obtain, but my colleague Cynthia King and I tried to remedy that by publishing a translation of them. (Cynthia did the translating; I did the editing and publishing.) It is the writings of the Roman Stoics that I, as a 21st century Stoic, find most useful.

Another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics routinely make reference to the gods in their writing, theirs was a philosophical rather than religious doctrine. Religions are primarily concerned with our having a good afterlife. Stoicism, by way of contrast, is primarily concerned with our having a good life. What Stoicism offers us is a philosophy of life or, as it is sometimes called, a philosophy for living.

In this philosophy, the Stoics tell us what in life is most worth having and provide us with a strategy to obtain it. What is most worth having, they tell us, is tranquility, and what they mean by this is an absence of negative emotions in our life. In their strategy to obtain this tranquility, they provide us with various psychological techniques that I describe in my Guide to the Good Life and that I will expand upon in this blog.

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

          God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

          The courage to change the things I can,

          And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

It is important to realize that Stoicism is not some kind of cult. To practice it, you will not have to turn over your worldly goods to a guru. You will not have to give up your day job. You will not have to dress in an unorthodox manner—although practicing Stoicism, by making you re-evaluate the way you are living, might affect the way you dress. All you have to do to practice Stoicism is put Stoic strategies to work in your life.

And even this can be done in an incremental manner. You can try a strategy and see if it works. If it does, you can move on to the next strategy. If it turns out, though, that Stoicism is not to your liking, you can abandon it. And if you have practiced your Stoicism in a “stealthy” manner—which is what, in my Guide, I recommend that you do—no one need be any the wiser.