This is a transcript of Episode 12 on Stoic Ethics.
Most Philosophy curriculums at Universities don’t go into Hellenistic Stoicism in very much detail, especially the Roman Stoics, the big three… Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius…and there’s a couple reasons for this. One… is that there is a rebirth of Stoicism in the 1600’s, it becomes widely discussed, and if you’re an academic and you’re gonna choose whether to study ambiguous re-translated fragments from ancient times or a relatively modern wealth of debate, the choice is easy. The second reason is that the Stoic Ethics that those three men are known for…many philosophers wouldnt even consider them complete Ethics… they’re not similar to what we’d read if we read Aristotelean Ethics or Platonist Ethics. Usually ethics consists of someone recommending or making a case for what the good life is. This is the RIGHT way to live. Here’s why all these other guys are wrong in what they think the best life is, Here’s why I am right. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, they don’t really talk about that stuff at all. They don’t dedicate much time to arguing why other people are wrong or introducing a new system of ethics that they created…they all seem to adopt the requisite understanding that Stoic ethics are right…and they spend most of their time saying… OK, well once you’ve accepted that…what does this mean for you…what does it mean to be a stoic in everyday life, and at MOST this is only ONE branch of Ethics as far as a modern philosophy teacher would see it.
Stoic Ethics can be thought of as a means of protecting us from any external adversity that can possibly be thrown our way. If you were doing a late night infomercial for Stoicism during the political trouble of the Hellenistic age, trying to convince people that Stoicism is for everyone, no matter what walk of life you come from…you can’t really ask for three people with more diversity between them than Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to plead your case. Coming from three COMPLETELY different backgrounds gives them three COMPLETELY unique types of adversity to deal with that were completely different from each other.
See, Epictetus was a slave who spent most of his life crippled, he spent his life teaching other people to apply Stoicism so they wouldn’t be enslaved within their minds. Stoicism helped him overcome the tribulations of being a slave. Seneca was a Roman statesman who later became the tutor and then political adviser to the murderous crazed-emperor Nero, where despite trying to get out of politics, was forced by Nero to continue working for him and later was forced by Nero to commit suicide. This sort of terrifying existence at the mercy of a crazy person obviously presented its own unique set of adversity that Stoicism helped him through. Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world…the emperor of Rome, often cited as the last good emperor of Rome, and he didn’t really add anything to Stoicism as Seneca and Epictetus did, but he was seen as a great example of stoicism when applied to a unique set of problems… and the stuff he wrote down gives us a peek behind the curtains into the thoughts of a dedicated practicing stoic living back then. Now at first you might think…”He was the emperor of Rome, what kind of problems could he possibly have to be dealing with…” How about the problems of an ENTIRE EMPIRE!? Like most emperors of Rome, constantly at war dealing with border disputes or just outright enemies…I mean he had Germanic barbarians to the north…Parthians to the east. He had plagues wiping people out…he was sick most of his life…all but one of his kids died during his lifetime…not to mention an entire empire to run. There’s a reason your hair starts turning grey when you’re the king of the world. Stoicism was kind of the Just for Men that Marcus Aurelius dabbed around his temples to keep his youthful appearance. Plus, have you seen the movie Gladiator? WAKEEN FEENIX was pretty annoying.
The passage of time between Zeno of Citium and Marcus Aurelius is a long time. The variance between their opinions on individual issues can also be pretty big, and as a podcaster I have to make a judgment call on where to draw certain lines. When you guys are talking to other people about the stoics, or trying to apply stoicism in your lives or comparing the Stoics with future or past philosophers…you probably aren’t interested in the difference between small things that are only relevant in a very narrow context, for example me rambling on about something like Seneca’s view of virtue in comparison to Epictetus’s view of virtue…and I think even if I did do that…what you guys would ultimately have…is an idea of who each man was, what contributions they made to Stoic Ethics and a general idea of who the Stoics were and what the Stoics were all about. All three of these men had areas of strength within Stoic ethics where they made larger contributions than the other two guys, and in those areas we will dedicate more time to what they had to say on the topic, but because there is so much overlap between them, I think this episode is going to work best if we talk about the tenets of stoic ethics, the common threads among them all that forge the definition of what a Stoic is and then refer back to quotes from each man to not only embellish what we’ve already laid out, but to offer insight.
That said, the central point…the thing that all stoic ethics are centered around is the idea of Oikeosis. This word is an adaptation of the Greek word oikos…which roughly translates to house…or orientation…it was referring to the idea that each thing, whether its an insect, an animal, a plant…a human…all of these things have a disposition assigned to it by Nature. Certain things that it was put here to do. For an animal like a…skunk it was easy. survival. self-preservation. eat, sleep, reproduce…but for humans, it was more. it included all that, it included self-preservation… but it also included rationality…we have a very unique ability to reason, and we should use it…we were put here to use it.
there are TV shows out there like the Real Word…or Jersey Shore…where the cast is made up of young people going out drinking and partying most nights…with about as many priorities set in their proper place as they have IQ points combined between the group of them. And there’s a recurring character on these shows that shows up once every couple seasons where they’re living in the real world house…but they have a boyfriend or girlfriend at home, and yet they still feel compelled to go out drinking and start flirting with other people. and right as they’re about to do their 8th shot of the night the show cuts to them in an interview earlier in the day where they say something like “Hopefully, I don’t cheat on my boyfriend…Hopefully nothing happens…” you know…where they’re shrugging as they say it just looking at the camera with a blank stare.
Behold everyone! The stoics would see this human as one that’s acting like it has the oikos of a skunk, or any animal for that matter. These people don’t see themselves as creatures with an oikos of reason…with the ability to make rational decisions that are in harmony with nature…they see themselves as passengers…whatever happens…happens. This is the same point I was talking about last time with the scene from LOST. The pig trapped in the net has a different oikos than Charlie the drug addict rock star…and John Locke was trying to help him realize this.
Marcus Aurelius says that everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. and that man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.
Alright so remember this concept of our oikos, cause we haven’t fully discussed what it is yet, and we will be returning to it a little later, but this sets a nice base for talking about Stoicism applied to our everyday lives. One of the most important topics of Stoic ethics, one that they repeatedly hammer home and make it clear that it’s very important is understanding the distinction between things we CAN control and things we CANT control. The stoics thought that out of all the areas we dedicate thought to, this is the one that we get wrong the most. Let me give you an example of someone you might know:
Some people are die hard sports fans. Some people have a team that they’re loyal to, they know all their players, they know the stats…they wear their autographed jersey to work on casual Friday…and when they watch a game and their favorite player hits the game winning shot, or the team is playing well together…they’re walking on sunshine for the rest of the day…but when their team is playing bad…or the referee makes a bad call against their team and their team loses…they’ll yell at the TV, slam doors, get angry…make the rest of the people living in the house uncomfortable. These people are allowing themselves to be made either happy or angry by the decisions of a select few people that don’t know that they’re a fan, they don’t care about their opinion, and they would trade their favorite player in a heartbeat if it meant a better bottom-line for them. The stoics would say, they have ABSOLUTELY ZERO control over anything that’s happening there…why would they allow themselves to be so negatively affected by it? Now most of us come to this conclusion without the help of the stoics, but this same concept applies to everything, no matter how small.
Like I said, the Stoics separated all things into two categories, things we do control and things we don’t control. The things we do control are our thoughts and actions. The things we don’t control are…well…everything else.
See, as humans, we are survival oriented creatures…we like stability. we like predictability. this is why people typically say we have a fear of the unknown. we like to have a particular way we react to a particular circumstance…we don’t like the fact that at any point in time we could get hit by a city bus, or someone could stab us…or a friend could betray us. we don’t like it, but its reality. we don’t actually control anything that happens external to us. but that doesn’t mean we should walk around being scared of this stuff all the time, the stoics thought we should recognize how out of our control it actually is. We like to think that things like our body…our bank account balance…our car…our reputation…we like to think that were in control of these things. But the stoics make the case that all of those things really ARENT in our control because at any time someone could steal your car…someone could destroy your reputation…your body could randomly have a brain aneurysm and to base your happiness on something that you have no control over is a recipe for disaster. They called all of these things…even things that happened in your past…all of these external things that we have no control over…they called them Indifferents. Being in a state free of suffering because you understand which things are in and out of your control was called apathea. But don’t mistake this with the modern word that sounds like it…apathy…which would mean not caring about what happens one way or another. They DID have a preference. There were preferred indifferents and unpreferred indifferents. Let me explain.
Even though we want these indifferents…like to be healthy or to have a good reputation…these things aren’t good in themselves. This is an idea that goes ALL THE WAY back to the Cynics…the only thing that is intrinsically good, or good in itself, not requiring anything else to be considered “good” are wisdom and virtue. And even the idea of qualifying something as intrinsically good goes all the way back to something Plato said in his Phaedo that if something is truly good…it would never even assist something that’s bad…so to the Stoics, even something like health was an indifferent…because its only good in relation to the person who its making healthy…like…the health of Adolph Hitler in 1939 wasn’t a very good thing. Good Health, and many other things would be considered PREFERRED indifferents, outcomes that are typically good for us, but we have no control over.
But just because we didn’t control when or if they happen to us, doesn’t mean that we cant make choices about how we perceive them. Remember the things we DO control…our thoughts and actions. The stoics thought all of our thoughts and actions about the things that happen to us in our lives fall somewhere on a large spectrum between what they called virtue and vice, but in modern times what we would think of as a spectrum between rational thinking and irrational thinking. The guy from the sports analogy we were talking about before…the guy that puts a trashcan on his head and runs into the nearest wall because his team lost…that guy’s thoughts and actions are leaning towards the IRRATIONAL side of the spectrum. Our goal as humans is to be as close to the rational side of the spectrum as possible.
Have you ever heard someone say…there’s no manual or handbook for living life? Well, Epictetus would beg to differ…his students collected a ton of his most insightful and wise statements and compiled them into a book called “The Enchiridion”, or the handbook. He contributed a lot to this discussion about things we can control and things we cant control…and it makes sense. He was a slave…for years of his life he had no choice but to grin and bear the fact that he was shackled and forced to do manual labor. He talks about the importance and potential gain when you understand the things you can and cant control here in his Discourses…and we pick up the quote right after he just got done describing something terrible happening to someone that was completely out of their control:
“What then should a man have in readiness in such circumstances? What else than “What is mine, and what is not mine; and permitted to me, and what is not permitted to me.” I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment? “Tell me the secret which you possess.” I will not, for this is in my power. “But I will put you in chains.” Man, what are you talking about? Me in chains? You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower. “I will throw you into prison.” My poor body, you mean. “I will cut your head off.” When, then, have I told you that my head alone cannot be cut off? These are the things which philosophers should meditate on, which they should write daily, in which they should exercise themselves. ”
Once we realize what is in and out of our control, then the Stoics say that we can use our ability to reason to not walk around expecting things that are out of our control to happen or not happen. recognize these things for what they really are…once your perception of reality is closer to reality…then your expectations will be closer to reality.
If some guy that lived on the other side of town from you, who you don’t know at all, suddenly decides he is going to change his career from the president of a bank, to a circus performer…would it bother you that you cant control his job situation? you wouldn’t be at all…knock yourself out! but that same guy, if when he was on his way to his new job as a circus performer cuts us off on the freeway…and all of a sudden..were angry about that. The truth is…We have about as much control over his decision to change from bank president to circus performer as we do over his decision to cut us off on the freeway…why do we react differently? well, its an expectation…we have an expectation that that guys gonna follow some unspoken set of rules that all drivers have consented to… without exception and he is never going to make a mistake. the stoics would say that this isn’t realistic…this isn’t a realistic expectation because we don’t have any control over what he does anyway so what good is being upset about it.
Marcus Aurelius talks about the idea of expectations a lot in his Meditations:
“If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.”
He also said:
“Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself.”
You may be saying to yourself that so far, Stoicism sounds a lot like Buddhism. Well you’re right, this is actually a very common thing that people notice. There are a lot of similarities between the two…not the least of which is the whole idea that there aren’t any things that are inherently favorable or unfavorable to us in themselves…it’s our interpretation of those things that determine what they are…not to mention…Siddhartha Gautama suggested that people practice meditation to stay in the present moment and assist you on your quest to happiness, AND SO DID THE STOICS! They just had a much more proactive and pessimistic approach. Remember, I said in the last show that Stoicism was kind of like an obstacle course or a training regimen. Epictetus said:
“What then should each of us say as each hardship befalls us? It was for this that I was exercising, It was for this that I was training.”
The stoics thought of it this way…it wasn’t good enough just to KNOW what stoic beliefs were…or to understand their ethics…philosophy was an Active process…one where you constantly remind yourself of tenets of stoicism and by always having them on the top of your mind, you create new habits of thinking that are in line with the tenets of stoicism. One of the practical methods of doing this that the Stoics suggest is a sort of pre-meditation. Marcus Aurelius describes it here:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
Let’s go back to the sports fan example from earlier…the way it stands now, this guy watches his sports games and at some level doesn’t expect anything bad to happen at all, despite the fact that every weekend when he watches the game…something bad happens. What Marcus Aurelius is talking about in that quote, and many of the Stoics talked about this, is that every morning this sports fan should prepare himself for what inevitably will come…bad calls. He should tell himself: Today my team WILL lose the coin toss….today my team WILL have a terrible injury that ruins our chances for the rest of the season…today the refs WILL make a terrible call…and we WILL lose the game because of it…
Marcus Aurelius said:
“Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thoughts as, for example: Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible.”
What are you accomplishing by saying all of that…what are the stoics teaching you to do? They’re teaching you to lower your expectations. If you approach the big game on Sunday pessimistically, if you truly expect that all of those terrible things are gonna happen, then when they DO happen, it was to be expected…when they don’t happen…you’re pleasantly surprised. Well this practice isn’t just useful for sports games…the stoics thought you should start EVERY day with this sort of mentality, and that same guy that gets upset about things he cant control while watching sports, probably gets upset about things he cant control on the road, in his office, in his marriage, etc.
This is the area of Stoicism that Seneca really excelled in. He famously said “That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away.” He has a book called “On the shortness of life”, where it’s all about the common human misconception that life is too short where Seneca says that it’s not that we weren’t given enough life to live, it’s that we waste so much of it. He tells a story about a prisoner who was locked up in his cell, awaiting his punishment for a crime…and the emperor of Rome at the time, Caligula, sentences him to death and when the guards come to get the prisoner from his cell to kill him…hes playing a game with a guard that was assigned to watch over him…and these other guards show up and tell him he’s sentenced to death and they start dragging him away to be killed and as these guards are dragging him away he says to them…”You guys are my witnesses…I was up by ONE PIECE there! I beat him!”
This sort of calmness in the face of problems is a hallmark of stoicism. When we think of the word stoic in modern times we think of someone who is unaffected…or ostensibly unaffected…and that may be true but it’s important to note that it’s not like the stoics didn’t FEEL emotions…they were just complete MASTERS of their emotions. Some stoics even take this mastery of emotions to the level where emotions don’t even exist to them…Seneca said that The idea of “moderate emotions,” is about as realistic as the idea of “moderate insanity” Emotions themselves are irrational…there’s no use trying to moderate them…we should train our brain to think rationally. The important part is this: Don’t let a single positive or negative emotion affect you too much…Don’t let a single compliment go to your head and make you think you’re the greatest ever…and don’t let a single insult get you down and make you think you’re a loser. Back to the sports analogy, don’t let a single win let you think your team is destined to win the championship and don’t let a single loss let you get down on future prospects.
Being a slave, Epictetus had some good things to say on this topic too he said:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.
he also said:
If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”
Our thoughts create our negative emotions. The most common and arguably the most destructive of all these negative emotions is Anger. By far, the most popular work by Seneca, and my favorite to read is called “On Anger” It’s an entire book dedicated to analyzing and dealing with…Anger. He famously said that “No plague has cost the human race more, than anger.” According to Seneca there are four primary emotions…two emotions thinking about the present time and two thinking about the future. Pleasure…which thinks that something is good right now…Pain…which thinks that something is bad right now…Desire…which thinks that something will be good in the future…and fear which thinks that something will be bad in the future. Anger, to Seneca, is a type of desire. Because an angry person is always thinking about revenge in the future.
He compares the irrationality of anger with proper rational thought here:
“Anger is altogether inconsistent. Sometimes it goes further than it should, Sometimes it stops short. It indulges itself, judges capriciously, refuses to listen, leaves no room for defense, clings to what it has seized and will not have its judgment, even a wrong judgment, taken from it. Reason gives time to either side, and then demands a further adjournment to give itself room to tease out the truth: anger is in a hurry. Reason wishes to pass a fair judgment: anger wishes the judgment which it has already passed to seem fair. Reason considers nothing save the matter at issue; anger is roused by irrelevant trifles.”
He spends a good deal of time in “On Anger” addressing the common misconception that people have that anger is something that is entirely out of their control…as though it’s involuntary…some sort of instinct that’s programmed in us…he makes a case for how the two are not the same here:
“take the way that we shiver when cold water is sprinkled on us, or recoil at the touch of some things take the way that bad news makes our hair stand on end and indecent language brings on a blush. None of these is in our power; no amount of reasoning can induce them not to happen. But anger IS put to flight by precept. For it IS a voluntary fault of the mind and not one of those which occur through some quirk of the human condition can therefore happen to the very wisest of men, even though they include that first mental jolt which affects us when we think ourselves wronged. ”
He says that most people see the process of anger as something bad happens to you…and then now I need to get back at that person. But Seneca says that it is much more complex than that…there are actually four stages to anger…realization, indignation, condemnation and retribution…he says it well here:
“To receive an impression of wrong done to one, to lust for retribution, to put together the two propositions that the damage ought not to have been done and that punishment ought to be inflicted, is not the work of a mere involuntary impulse. That would be a simple process. What we have here is a complex with several constituents — realization, indignation, condemnation, retribution. These cannot occur without assent by the mind to whatever has struck it.”
The first step is realization…this is the moment you realize that someone has done something bad to you…this is the moment you realize a referee just made a terrible call on the television against your team.
The second step is indignation…that bad thing just happened to you, and now you have contempt for the person that wronged you…the referee just cost my team the game…i hate them now.
The third step is condemnation…now that this person is contemptible, now you label them as a bad person that deserves punishment for how they’ve wronged you…this is you saying that the referee should lose his job…that he should keep his ref uniform and just go work at footlocker where he belongs…
The fourth step is retribution…this is the childish idea of exacting revenge…you know I need to get BACK at them for what they’ve done to me…in the referee example there’s all sorts of things you can do here, but I guess one of them would be you organizing a petition to send to the NFL to get the referee fired for his terrible mistake.
So anger is actually a pretty lengthy process even though it happens so quickly in the moment. It certainly isn’t the same as the involuntary shiver that happens when cold water is sprinkled on us like Seneca talks about. He gives several recommendations throughout the book, one of them is adjusting the way you look at the world to ensure that you have more realistic expectations of what is going to happen to you…adopting a more pessimistic view like we talked about before…and using mental gymnastics, like reading a mantra to yourself at the beginning of the day expecting bad things to happen…constantly referencing the principles of stoicism in your mind to form good habits of thought…things like that.
So this idea of having realistic expectations is definitely powerful, but I’d imagine some of you are saying something like…Well, I can change my world view and have realistic expectations…but what if even THOSE expectations get broken…then I should be really mad…and on that same note, what about someone who has unrealistic expectations, but they have the ability to accept the fact that expectations wont be met sometimes?”
This point is the reason why I believe that happiness doesn’t lie in low expectations like a lot of people say…it lies in acceptance. And this acceptance of everything that happens to you…the acceptance of your fate is a hallmark of stoicism.
Determinism is a very broad concept in philosophy that says that when something happens…something is the case that makes it so that nothing else could have happened. There are TONS of different kinds of determinism, many of them differing in their idea of what that THING IS that makes it so that nothing else could have happened. Things are destined…Now, Some people might instantly think that this implies some kind of magical thinking, but not necessarily. Yes, it could be the providential plan of a God at work, but it could also be entirely non-magical..like the idea that the brain is a computer basically and based on the input you’ve received so far…there IS a reaction that will happen…you THINK you’re making a conscious decision, but really it was the inevitable process of the brain you’ve been given combined with your experiences. This is a VERY broad topic with MANY different varieties…all of them have names…the relationship between free will and determinism is one of the most widely discussed topics in all of philosophy..and trust me, the works of the stoics are not our best option of content to reference when talking about it. There are much better options…not to mention…within stoicism it’s one of the most controversial topics. The most important thing to take from their views on the matter is that they were compatiblists. They believed that the idea of determinism and the idea of free will are compatible with each other. They’re not mutually exclusive as many people think.
They believed in the idea of fate…but the important part is not the magical aspect to fate…the important part is the acceptance that you get from that mentality. Zeno and Chrysippus compared humans going throughout their life on planet earth to dogs that were tied to the back of a cart. Just imagine that visual…a big cart tied to the back of a horse is moving along a path…and someone tied a dog to the back of it. The movement of the cart represents fate…god’s plan…the reason that governs all things…and we, as humans are the dog. We’re going where ever the carts going…there’s no fighting it…the question is, how much are we going to whine and complain and struggle along the way. Think of yourself as a foot that is part of a human. What if you were a foot? You’d just be one small part of a giant body doing its purpose until you stop working one day. It would be ridiculous for you to say to the body…”No…I’m not speaking to you. I refuse to walk around anymore…I refuse to do my foot duties” No, that would be ridiculous right? Because the foot needs to realize that what is in the best interest of the body is in the best interest of the foot. It needs to fill its role and not complain. The stoics thought this is the way humans should look at themselves in relation to the world. One small part, doing its duty for the greater whole.
Several years ago I got an English Bulldog…I named him Charlie…and he is adorable. That is his only good quality. If you’ve never had an English Bulldog, they are notoriously stubborn. They’re very difficult to train…some people can do it…I’ve seen it before…I have massive respect for you if you can…but I sit there with a treat in my hand telling him to sit…and I just look into his blank eyes staring at the treat…and after four or five times of telling him to sit…I just give him the treat. Well one day I made a huge mistake, whenever we go anywhere I put him in the laundry room and a couple years ago he refused to go in. He just stared at me, so I got a treat, coaxed him into the laundry room, gave him the treat closed the door…Problem solved…Evolution everybody, it’s wonderful. But it wasn’t wonderful…NOW he doesn’t come in unless if he gets the treat. I tell him…”Get in your room.” and he looks at me…and doesn’t move…he wants the treat…and hes not moving until he gets it…its like a reverse hunger strike…i say “get in your room” he starts going “hmmmmm…..hmmmm” This next sentence is gonna make me sound crazy. If Charlie was a human…and the Stoics were around to see this behavior…they would give him a stern talking to. I mean I give him an ENDLESS WATERFALL of food and water…a couch to sleep on…and he has ONE JOB and that’s to get into the laundry room when were leaving the house…and like the dog tied to the back of the cart…like humans tied to the inevitable process of fate…he whines and struggles, but eventually he gets in the laundry room. He always does. Stoicism says we should have resigned acceptance and just cut out that whole process of whining and struggling…and just get in the laundry room.
Epictetus says it well when he says:
“don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen and you will go on well.”
Marcus Aurelius says:
“the good mans only singularity lies in his approving welcome to every experience the looms of fate may weave for him”
“Everything is right for me that is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late that comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me that your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return.”
“Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes.”
What Seneca is touching on here is the idea that accepting your place in Nature as a very small part of a massive fated process not only can bring you comfort in times of the political adversity of the Hellenistic Age, but it can also bring you comfort if something is taken away from you or if a loved on dies. This is an interesting alternative to the purpose than an afterlife serves. Someone loses a friend, or a child or a parent that is very close to them…and there’s void left in their absence…it is a great consolation to tell that person that you will see that person soon and you guys will live forever together and it will be better because your dad messed up his ankle playing college football and that’s not gonna mess with him anymore…that idea is comforting. The Stoics talked about thinking of everything from your most prized possessions, to your family members as really belonging to nature, just as you’d think your right foot belongs to you and not to its best friend…your left foot. Think of these people and things as being already gone in a sense. Then there wont be any unrealistic attachment to these things…the relations to Buddhism are obvious.
“Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but only “I have given it back.” Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead? She has been given back. “I have had my farm taken away.” Very well, this too has been given back. ” Yet it was a rascal who took it away.” But what concern is it of yours by whose instrumentality the giver called for its return? So long as He give it to you, take care of it as of a thing that is not your own, as travelers treat their inn.”
“Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away.”
To the epicureans, pleasure was the most important thing to shoot for. To the Stoics, Virtue was the most important thing to shoot for. Pleasure, and various other things people think are the end goal, are seen as after thoughts in Stoicism. If you live virtuously, you will experience pleasure, but the real thing to focus on is virtue. In other words, humans are a little like my dog charlie not wanting to get into the laundry room. You shouldn’t get into the laundry room just because you get a treat if you do it. You shouldn’t do the right thing because it brings about happiness…although it probably will. You shouldn’t do the right thing because it brings you pleasure, although it probably will. You do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. It is in harmony with the reason that governs all things. If the only things we have control over are our thoughts and actions, then the only thing we have control over is our mind or soul, whatever you want to call it. And if our mind is the only thing we control, we should try to do it as best as possible.
“The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live…virtue is nothing else than right reason.”
He who is free in the body, but bound in the soul is a slave; but on the contrary he who is bound in the body but free in the soul, is truly free.
Marcus Aurelius gives interesting thoughts on the matter being the emperor of Rome…
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”
Kinda ran out of time, but I want to end with one of my favorite parts of Stoicism…and it brings us back to the idea of our oikos that we said we’d return to at the beginning of the show. We’ll talk in one of the next episodes on Stoic Natural Law, but one of the implications from this is the idea of having compassion for your fellow humans and fellow animals. Like we said at the beginning, the oikos of something like a skunk is very simple…eat sleep reproduce, self-preservation…and occasionally chasing around a cat with a white paint stripe on it and teaching kids about the consequences of sexual harassment. For humans, it is part of our oikos to not interfere with other creatures and their ability to carry out their oikos. It wouldn’t make much sense for a foot to sabotage or inhibit the hands’ ability to do their job. We should help other humans to exercise their rationality. Treat other humans and animals with compassion.
“Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming—in a word, anything that distracts you from fidelity to the Ruler within you – means a loss of opportunity for some other task. See then that the flow of your thoughts is kept free from idle or random fancies, particularly those of an inquisitive or uncharitable nature. A man should habituate himself to such a way of thinking that if suddenly asked, ‘What is in your mind at this minute?’ he could respond frankly and without hesitation; thus proving that all this thoughts were simple and kindly, as becomes a social being with no taste for the pleasures of sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments that he would blush to acknowledge in himself. Such a man, determined here and now to aspire to the heights, is indeed a priest and minister of the gods; for he is making full use of that indwelling power which can keep a man unsullied by pleasures, proof against pain, untouched by insult, and impervious to evil. He is a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery; he is imbued through and through with uprightness, welcoming whole-heartedly whatever falls to his lot and rarely asking himself what others may be saying or doing or thinking except when the public interest requires it. He confines his operations to his own concerns, having his attention fixed on his own particular thread of the universal web; seeing to it that his actions or honourable, and convinced that what befalls him must be for the best – for his own directing fate is itself under a higher direction. He does not forget the brotherhood of all rational beings, nor that a concern for every man is proper to humanity; and he knows that it is not the world’s opinions he should follow, but only those of men whose lives confessedly accord with Nature. As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad , and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes, has no value for him.”