Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”. Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today. We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well. And now, Oliver’s post!
Bertolt Brecht said about himself that he was a Marxist before he actually became acquainted with Marxism. In a similar way, I was a Stoic before I read a single line from Seneca or Epictetus.
The beauty of philosophy is that everyone discovers it naturally, through the very process of living. There are Phenomenologists and Existentialists who never heard of Heidegger or Sartre; Platonists who have only a vague idea of who Plato was; Pragmatists who could not care less about Dewey; and so on. Each one arrives at the school most suited to their character as shaped by their experience.
Into the Stoa Poikile one arrives via the path of reasoned disposition. Philosophers use reason for a wide variety of purposes, but only the Stoics advocate it as the primary means to vanquish tears, experience joy, and attain virtue – and with it, happiness, or, rather, “good-spiritness”, the eudaimonia.
Virtue is an antiquated concept. It brings to mind images of medieval chivalry and exalted Christian devotion. But before knight- and sainthood -became its memes, in the time when the Roman eagle spread its wings from Britain to Syria, virtue was synonymous with the nobility of character. And one’s character is revealed in everyday action.
Stoics do not really believe in episodic heroism, one-time feats. Such episodes are incidental, hence, no true experience can be sourced from them. Everyday life, on the other hand, offers endless opportunities. Laziness, boredom, procrastination, anxiety, anger, depression, meaninglessness – we all have experienced some of it, and know how hard they are to fight. But Stoics teach that we need not fight: we need to reason. Otherwise we can as well end up beating ourselves on the head: these are our emotions, but they need not be in control over us.
And that’s the first step. Isn’t it ridiculous, says Epictetus, that our emotions from our own heads enslave us? Shouldn’t we recognise them as our emotions – and nothing more? That we aren’t compelled to re-live them again and again?
“But the circumstances make us feel it!”, many will argue. True enough, circumstances are often bigger than us, we can’t master them. But aren’t we big enough for ourselves to manage? Even when a situation is disturbing or outright terrible, we can’t fail to notice that we are still not entirely in the grip of emotion, that there is a part of us that remains observant, and therefore calm – the part of reason. Even in the most discouraging of circumstances we remain free to choose which one to endorse. That is the unassailable inner citadel of which Marcus Aurelius spoke.
When we understand it and accept it, we make the second step.
Having one’s own inner fortress with walls that no one can breach is comforting. One is tempted to remain within. But part of us is still unsatisfied. We sense that something is not right, that our joy is incomplete. From the ramparts we observe our fellow humans suffer, and we feel sorry for them. We realize that no man is an island or, as Seneca put it, that our society is an arch where each stone is meant to support another.
Once again, we are faced with a choice: forever remain under siege, or venture out. But choosing to remain means subjecting ourselves to the pangs of guilt over our cowardice. The paradox of freedom: the deeper one understands, the fewer the options become. Stoics explain that that is because we are intrinsically altruistic, that ethics is inseparable from reason.
And that is where we make the third step, of duty to humankind, and complete our induction.
From here onwards, as Seneca explained in his 30th letter to Lucilius, we’re expected to live our own Stoical lives. Liberated from the tyranny of circumstances and emotions, we can endeavour to be what we should: humane individuals, caring, compassionate, and steadfast against the odds.
Free, and eudaimonic about it.
Igor Novokreshchenov is a social anthropologist, community development worker and homeless activist based in London.