Stoicism and the Human Condition
by John Sellars
A common remark about the recent revival of interest in Stoicism is that this is merely a reaction to current economic difficulties in parts of the developed world. In tough times people turn to Stoicism, so the story goes, but when all is well people have little interest in or need for Stoicism. This echoes Hegel’s account of Roman Stoicism written two centuries ago, claiming that their focus on self-transformation merely reflected the fact that they were powerless to change the world.
I don’t think this is right. Of course it may be true in some cases, but it hardly tells the whole story. Rather than see Stoicism as a response to current external circumstances, a sort of short-term therapy for current adversity, I would rather see it as a response to something more basic and fundamental about the human condition. The central ideas presented by the Roman Stoics all reflect in different ways on the fact that we are by nature finite beings, mortal and limited in our power.
Our lives are by their nature brief moments in time. As finite beings it is necessarily so that we cannot completely control the external world. We have no say whether we get ill or not, or precisely when we shall die. We can of course do what we can to influence these things, do things to secure our health, search for a cure for cancer, and so on, but we can never change the basic facts that we are mortal, we shall die, and all our loved ones will die. What time we do have is limited and we have no say over how much we shall have or when it will end.
This is not meant to sound overly pessimistic; it is simply stating a series of facts. Stoicism, like many other practically oriented philosophies, is a reflective response to these facts. Its insights can inform the way we look at both good and bad periods in our lives. Seneca advises that we reflect on how much is ultimately out of our control when things are going very well as much as when they are going badly. The successes we have are as much out of our control as our failures, both the product of chance and forces outside of us as much as they are due to our efforts. A Stoic attitude, then, ultimately ought to be one of humility in the face of forces much larger than ourselves. We are but momentary arrangements of matter soon to be dissipated and forgotten. As Samuel Beckett put it:
They give birth astride of a grave,
The light gleams an instant,
Then it is night once more.
Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:
Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.
These sorts of reflections have nothing to do with frustration about not being able to change the world for the better. Great wealth or political power do not make them go away, as the case of Marcus Aurelius himself amply illustrates. Instead they speak of something more fundamental about what it means to be a finite being, limited in power and duration, surrounded by forces that might overwhelm us at any moment.
John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living. Read more about John’s work on his website.