from BigThink Website
in the imagination
Wars, disease, economic upheavals, and political strife dominate news headlines. Traditions, once the terra firma of our lives, have split along cultural fault lines and are shifting widely.
And the lessons imparted
to us by our parents seem completely out of touch with the
challenges we face daily.
We are not special in this regard, though.
Our modern circumstances may be idiomatic - Plato worried over the harms of pervasive poetry; not social media would have thrown him for a loop - but strife and struggle have been universals of human history.
Every generation has had
to endure both to various degrees.
These traditions include,
He lived in Athens and lectured in the open market at a place called the stoa poikile,
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great died without an obvious heir, leaving his kingdom to be fought over and subsequently carved up by his generals.
As a result, the Greek poleis became subsumed by larger political entities run by professional bureaucrats.
In the words of Chloè Valdary, founder of Theory of Enchantment,
Within that existential despair, Stoicism developed as a unified philosophy that sought to understand the essence of knowledge and the natural order of the cosmos.
From that pursuit, the Stoics derived an ethic that, in the words of philosopher Simon Blackburn, focused on,
This would in turn lead to happiness (in the eudaimonic sense of the word)...
Nero and Seneca,
by Eduardo Barrón
As Stoicism moved from the Hellenistic period into the Roman world, its ethics took center stage, becoming the reason for the philosophy.
Today, that emphasis on engaging with everyday life has seen Stoicism revived as a kind of practical philosophy.
It draws strongly from Stoicism's later Roman practitioners and is often used in tandem with other strategies for coping and emotional regulation.
As such, you can use the quotes below without having to dust off earlier Stoic concepts like the phantasia kataleptikē or the logos spermatikos.
(So no worries if you haven't brushed up on your ancient Greek.)
As Valdary noted in an interview:
For example, Zeno's Greek contemporaries couldn't control Alexander the Great's death or the ensuing social upheaval.
Such things, as Aurelius put it,
In the same section of Meditations (Book IV), Aurelius also warns that the world is always changing, and we can't stop that from happening.
We can only influence how we think and react to that change.
As he writes, "The universe is transformation: life is opinion."
Now, Aurelius doesn't mean we should live lives as moral recluses in total passivity. Far from it...!
We can (and should) strive to enrich our lives and the world in virtuous ways. The Stoics did this themselves when they taught their philosophy.
However, we need to understand where our control lies, and that responsibility is primarily with ourselves.
Just as a carpenter shapes wood, Epictetus writes, so too are we responsible for the art of living...
In particular, this quote comes from a moment in The Discourses where Epictetus is consulting a man whose brother is upset with him.
Like a true Stoic, Epictetus's advice is for the man,
As for the brother,
The suicide of Seneca
Manuel Domínguez Sánchez (1871)
When our minds are filled with those "external" and "immovable" qualities of life, we often catastrophize more than is appropriate...
None of which, according to Seneca, is helpful in the least.
In Letters of a Stoic (Epistle XIII), the Stoic philosopher advises his interlocutor, Lucilius, that such catastrophizing does no good.
Instead, we should reign in our mind's calamitous predictions and handle what's before us with the proper care and attention.
Aurelius backs up Seneca on this point.
As he notes in The Meditations (Book II),
Neither Seneca nor Aurelius are saying,
Better to understand the source of the emotion and treat it with the proper care than to continue suffering in the mind.
Epictetus teaches that while difficult times are often, well, difficult,
In The Discourses (Book I),
One can say the same of the Greeks during the Hellenistic period.
While it was a time of immense social and political tumult, it was also a cultural renaissance that birthed new ways of thinking and expression.
New forms of art, music, and literature emerged. Science and invention reached new heights under thinkers such as Euclid and Archimedes.
And alongside Stoicism, the era gave birth to the philosophies of Epicureanism and Neoplatonism as well.
The Nike of Samothrace
is considered a masterpiece and is an example
of the incredible artistic strides the Greeks took
during the Hellenistic period.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Modern science backs up Epictetus's claim.
According to Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University, research shows that the most meaningful jobs aren't the most luxurious, highest paying, or those of the highest status.
Instead, they are jobs that involve struggle and difficulty, such as being an education or medical professional.
With that said, Bloom and Epictetus both put caveats on this dictum.
But we shouldn't turn away from suffering simply because it's difficult, painful, or includes the possibility of failure as many of life's great achievements can be found within that struggle.
So far, we've looked at how the Stoics taught individuals to approach difficult times.
That may make it seem as though Stoicism is some kind of proto-libertarian philosophy. Just take care of yourself and let the rest of the world take care of itself.
That characterization, while common, is also misleading.
As this quote from Seneca's letters (Epistle V) makes clear,
In Epistle IX, Seneca writes:
Instead, a friend is someone whom we experience the shared experiences of life with.
In other words, simply through sympathy and companionship, a friend becomes a source of immense strength that helps us along our individual paths.
And that can be true of any relationship.