A new, 10 minute, introductory video on the Ancient Healthcare and Modern Wellbeing project here at the University of Exeter’s Classics Department, discussing the work being undertaken both on finding insights from ancient psychotherapeutics texts (as found in Stoicism) and from ancient texts on preventative medicine (as found in the 2nd Century doctor Galen and his text On Preserving Health).
Perspectives: The Stoics on the Community of Humankind
Much of Stoic philosophy stemmed from the simple observation that each of us is a part of the human race. From this accurate, so often considered naïve, fact, they argued that each of us had a role to play in contributing to the common good of our own species. For nature wants all things to continue, and each species is to work together to that end.
Now whilst, the Stoics observed, ants or bees naturally work together, the human being, whose mind is subject to all kinds of prejudiced conditioning from his or her own individual society, has to use his reason to pierce through that conditioning in order to understand the way things are, i.e. the aforementioned fact that each of us is a part of a species whose wellbeing we value, and to base his or her action on this fact. For that reason, they developed the metaphor of the human race as a ‘body’. Thus, as all the limbs contribute to the health of our body, so too does each human, like a limb, contribute to the body of humanity. The fact that this was setting the bar high was never to be taken as a deterrent, and especially so if you really did want to follow nature’s way. And as you too are a part of nature, a Stoic would say, why wouldn’t you want to do this?
This short article is printed with kind permission of the James Allen Girls’ School in London, Howard Peacock, who teaches philosophy there, and philosophy pupil Matilda Simpson.
Stoicism at James Allen’s Girls’ School
As a part of the “live like a stoic week” our Year Thirteen philosophy class decided that it would beneficial for all to try to actively educate our fellow students in the ways of Stoicism. Setting up a stall in the middle of the common room we stood on hand handing out pamphlets and giving advice to our peers on how they could make the most of that week. Though most people’s immediate response to us was to inquire as to why we were wearing beards (not quite understanding we were undertaking the role of classic philosophers) they soon became interested in the actual ideas of the doctrine. There was some misunderstanding at first but they soon became accepting of the concepts of the importance of wisdom and harmony and decided altogether these were definite traits they felt could be integrated in to their work fuelled life styles. To those who were receptive we handed out cue cards with key phrases that they could take away that would remind them to live stoically such as “If something bad happens, you must simply accept it”, and “If someone is mean to you say : It seemed so to him.” Although nobody made a definite promise to swap their morning coffee for meditation we nonetheless felt that the idea had been a success, and hopefully they will think about employing stoic ideals in to their lives for more than just the week.
More background, from the school’s website: From 26-29 November, girls at JAGS participated in the UK’s first “Stoic Week”, organized by the University of Exeter to raise awareness of the continued relevance of Stoicism, the ancient Greek and Roman lifestyle philosophy that emphasized self-control, virtue, and above all the “Stoical” acceptance of events which it is not in our power to control.
The Year 13 Philosophy class set up a stall in the sixth-form common rooms offering Stoic advice to their peers, and spread Stoic doctrine peripatetically through the school, while Stoic ideas were the theme of the Year 10 & 11 philosophy discussion group. Year 12 Greek students set about translating two chapters of Epictetus’ Encheiridion (“handbook”) of Stoicism from the original koine Greek.
All concerned were very pleased by the success of the events, but not excessively so: participants were quick to remind us that success or failure in worldly affairs is beyond our control; the important thing was that at all points they acted in accordance with virtue and their own nature as rational beings.
This year, Stoic Week will take place from Monday 25th of November to Monday 2nd of December. We are applying for funding to improve the resources available for the week, including a vastly improved booklet; more audio recordings of Stoic askeseis (spiritual exercises); and more robust measurements and scales. We decided it would be best to put all our resources into improving the resources available for the next Stoic Week in November/December, rather than rush everything for a Stoic fortnight in February. This way, there will be a strong foundation for Stoic weeks to run annually in future. At the moment, we are also investigating funding for other exciting projects related to adapting Stoicism for today, which could take the project in exciting parallel developments.
So keep practising Stoicism! Perhaps invite some friends and classmates to be Stoics for a week, or two weeks, and let us know how you get on!
For example, here in Exeter, we will be having out own Stoic week amongst staff and students in late February and early March.
This is a chapter, reproduced with kind permission, from the forthcoming work 50 Philosophy Classics, by Tom Butler-Bowdon and published by Nicholas Brealey. The book will be published on the 14th March, 2013.
In this guest piece, read about Heraclitus, the first Greek to place such attention on the idea of the Logos, or the rational underlying structure of the universe, a concept which later underpinned the practice of ancient Stoicism. Read and post your thoughts!
One of the great philosophers before Socrates and Plato, Heraclitus was the eldest son of the leading family of Ephesus, one of the main cities of the ancient Greek world and famous for its temple of Artemis.
We do not know a huge amount about Heraclitus, except that he avoided involvement in politics, was something of a loner, and, at a time when it was normal for philosophers to play a part in politics and communicate their ideas in speech, he focused on the written word. As a result, his thoughts survived him and his book of sayings became famous in the ancient world. Plato and others discussed him, but his influence was greatest among the Stoics.
It’s interesting to think about the shift, in late Stoicism, from the worship of Divine Nature to the cursing of Lady Fortune. I’m thinking particularly of Seneca’s consolatory letter to Marcia, where he writes this extraordinary passage:
We have come into the realm of Fortune, and harsh and invincible is her power; things deserved and undeserved must we suffer just as she wills. With violence, insult, and cruelty she will maltreat our bodies. Some she will burn with fire, applied, it may be, to punish, it may be, to heal; some she will bind with chains, committing the power now to an enemy, now to a fellow-countryman; some she will toss naked upon the fickle sea, and, when their struggle with the waves is over, she will not even cast them up on the sand or the shore, but will hide them away in the maw of some huge monster; others, when she has worn them down with divers diseases, she will long keep suspended between life and death. Like a mistress that is changeable and passionate and neglectful of her slaves, she will be capricious in both her rewards and her punishments. What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.
Now, in other essays Seneca talks explicitly about Providence and Nature, and praises both. But he also often talks about Fortune, and the pitilessness we can expect at Her hands (it is usually anthropomorphized as a Her). There seems to me a tension there, an ambiguity about the forces that rule the universe. Are we the children of the Logos, a wise and benevolent god or goddess who orders all things to perfection, or are we under the sovereignty of Lady Fortune, a cruel and merciless bitch? Or possibly both?
One finds a similar ambiguity in Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, in which the narrator meets two goddesses – Lady Fortune, who is an evil seductress, and Lady Philosophy, who will help free the narrator from the wiles and devices of Lady Fortune. I haven’t read Boethius’ great work for a few years, and I’m no academic expert on either him or Seneca, but I wonder if there is a shift in late Stoicism towards more of a Christian or Gnostic view of Nature, in which it’s possible that external reality is under the sovereignty of an evil agency – Lady Fortune, similar to the Gnostic demiurge or the Christian idea of Satan – while there is a higher agency who is trying to free us from imprisonment by this lower malevolent deity.
Before Stoicism, of course, the Greeks got round this problem by characterizing Demeter, goddess of Nature, as both evil pitiless bitch and all-loving benevolent mother. Nature could be vicious and cruel to humanity, as personified by Demeter Erinys, Black Demeter, the grieving, venguful mother of Persephone. But she could also be placated, through the Eleusinian Mysteries, and humanity could come back into a more harmonious relationship with Her.
After the Socratic revolution, humans weren’t quite sure which aspect of Nature to see, either the loving benevolent face of Demeter the harvest goddess, or the vicious and vengeful face of Demeter Erinys. It’s like the famous optical illusion of the old hag / beautiful young girl. And that ambiguity, that optical illusion, is apparent in Seneca’s switching between Providence and Fortune. So it seems to me, anyway. I wrote about this in the past for a Stoicism blog series I did for the New Statesman, here.