The Ageing Stoic by Alison McCone

Oh, my goodness, what a great Stoicon 2021 we had a few weeks ago! Superbly organised by Andi and Greg, with Phil and many others bringing it to life. I was delighted to help with Tim’s workshop where we heard stories of how people use Stoicism to overcome everyday challenges, however big or small. Despite not being a Stoic or an academic I’ve been a devotee of this organisation since its conception in Exeter. I’m not a fan of labelling people, and I can be a bit obsessive, so it’s prudent for me to embrace Stoicism as a therapeutic philosophy for the soul or spirit, and a cognitive methodology for managing the emotions. I don’t identify as a Stoic because above all, I value my freedom to be free. I don’t want any philosophy to be a substitute for a religion. I don’t have faith in Stoicism, but I have faith in human nature. Call me naïve perhaps, but I believe in the goodness of people and the wonder of existence. Modern Stoicism is a living, breathing, thinking thing – a product of people sharing their thoughts, feelings and insights. We learn from our various experiences. We aren’t afraid to face our shortcomings. We are happy to celebrate our successes.

Watching Modern Stoicism grow up towards adolescence has made me think about how quickly time is passing by. As I travel towards an ending, I’m trying to follow the advice of Kathryn Koromilas who so joyfully and courageously guides me along the swift road towards the ‘d’ word. I’m not afraid of my death, but I am anxious about the death of loved ones. This anxiety is not just a bundle of thoughts that can be easily reframed. Worrying can have physical properties that cause bodies to display a wide range of symptoms. I don’t know whether there’s a death certificate in existence that posits worry as the cause of demise, but thanatophobia appears to be vivid and harmful.

Time to snuggle under a Stoic security blanket and come to terms with death whilst also pay attention to the here and now. As every minute ticks by I am given the opportunity to age. I can do my best like I promised to as a young Brownie who never quite made it into the Girl Guides (probably due to far too much disco dancing and cigarette smoking!). I might need to pay closer attention to a super new Stoic read, Being Better by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos. I can Stoic It Up and get over myself, as Eve Riches so wisely recommended during Stoic Week. I can pick up the surviving Stoic texts to discover how I can get the most value out of the ageing process, instead of focusing too much on the end goal.

I’ve written and spoken for Modern Stoicism in the past, but at Stoicon 2021 I was given another wonderful opportunity. During the Lightning Talks hour, hosted by Harald, I was in very good company as I presented a case for how a modern Stoic can age hopefully and happily as follows:-

“Regularly focusing on death as recommended by the ancient Stoics is a good idea, but surely if we’re being rational and reasonable, we should devote a healthy amount of time trying to get the best value out of the remainder of the journey, no matter how short or long it is.

Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations calls himself to action by saying –

The time you have left is short. Live it as if you were on a mountain. Here or there makes no difference, if wherever you live you take the world as your city. Let men see, let them observe a true man living in accordance with nature. (Meditations, Book 6, 7)

If we take Marcus’s advice we shouldn’t worry about where we are in space, just follow the natural course of the ageing process on the way to the summit. By thinking back to our younger days, we can remember climbing many mountains. Even molehills may have felt like the Pyrenees at times. As we’ve grown, we’ve earned the right to be at the top of our own mountain by exercising the virtue of courage along the way. Listen to Marcus, wander around that mountain, enjoy the view and make yourself comfortable in your inner city, or citadel.

One skill we can keep working on as we age is character development. The ancient Stoic advice is straightforward – keep working on growing the virtues. We’ve had the courage to get this far but we’ve used wisdom too. Modern Stoics are modest enough to know that despite having lots of experience they need to be lifelong learners. Parts of our body may be ailing and failing but one of the best responses to ageing is to take extra care of our brain health. A recent study of almost 2,000 people in the 80 plus age bracket found that dementia can be delayed by as much as 5 years by engaging in intellectual activities such as reading, puzzle solving or card games. Marcus Aurelius echoes this when he says –

The directing mind is that which wakes itself, adapts itself, makes itself of whatever nature it wishes and makes all that happens to it appear in the way it wants. (Meditations, Book 6, 8)

If fate grants us the privilege of ageing it is worth considering how the virtue of justice plays a part. We’re lucky to be here. By being just to those around us, by showing them love and consideration, we can help to remove the fear of ageing and death that many people experience as they follow in our footsteps. Existential angst is a feature of many lives and mortality anxiety is just one component. By appealing to justice, the trajectory of our lives can be accepted, and a deeper knowledge of human nature can develop. Musonius Rufus tells us –

When a human being lives for virtue, he deserves praise and can rightly think well of himself and be hopeful and courageous. A cheerful disposition and secure joy automatically accompany these attributes. (Lectures & Sayings, 17, 2)

The Stoic who learns from the world around them as they travel through the school of life should be well equipped to complete the course. Musonius says –

In his old age, this person would use these lessons to live according to nature. He would endure without regret being deprived of the pleasures connected with youth. (Lectures & Sayings, 17, 3)

 

Musonius Rufus is advising us to employ the virtue of temperance as a defense against old age. By listening to our bodies, we may realize we need to adjust certain behaviors. But remember, pleasure comes in various guises, and I believe sensual fulfilment should be a feature of ageing life for the modern Stoic. Thankfully good old Seneca has our backs. He says –

Well we should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending. Every pleasure defers till its last its greatest delights, and even the age that stands on the brink has pleasures of its own.  (Letters from a Stoic, Letter X11, 4).

When I found Stoic philosophy in 2012 eudaimonia was unfamiliar to me. I was in the self-loathing camp of victimhood and my response to an existential crisis was more like –

‘YOU DIE, MOAN HERE’ !!!!

So how can we turn that sort of feeling around and begin to experience the zest for living that modern Stoics score so highly on? Maybe time to give a final shout out to our old friend Epictetus, the master of prohairesis. Well-being may be the course of choice for the younger folk but during the third act of life we might need to work a bit harder and resort to will-being. We can choose how to age well before someone else tries to make our decisions for us. As Epictetus states –

Above all, nature demands that we conform and adapt our will to our idea of what’s right and useful. (Discourses and Selected Writings, Fragments, 6)

So, in a nutshell that was my very short interlude with a few ancient Stoics on ageing, and obviously I only scratched the surface. As always there is so much more to learn and as I’m talking about it again here, I’m feeling something is happening. It’s about me and you. Human interaction produces something special. As I think back to Stoicon 2021, I’m reconnecting with human animals and non-human animals (yes, I’m thinking about all your beloved pets too). I don’t know about you, but dogs and cats can lift my spirits, even if it is for a fleeting moment, especially over the last year and a half of the pandemic. With Iris Murdoch’s kestrel in mind, I’m unselfed and can’t help but utter the word ‘dog’ whenever I catch a glimpse of a panting tongue or a wagging tail.

Throughout my life I wouldn’t have managed the mountains and molehills without help. People make a difference. I think it’s fair to say that now, more than ever, Modern Stoicism places greater emphasis on compassion and care, for self and others. There has been a concerted effort to distinguish ‘Stoic’ from ‘stoic’. Many people are trying to debunk the myth that Stoicism’s aim is to shut down feelings or prevent desire. A loving Stoic is not an oxymoron.

Our assigned or chosen gender may not always make a difference, but in recent years more females have joined the Modern Stoicism team. Duff, Sharon, Brittany, Meredith, and many more have added extra warmth to the light that former Stoics had kindled. This is not to suggest for one minute that people identifying as females have some extra sense of caring and are empathically superior to others. I merely want to mention how humans with differences and similarities can mutually accommodate each other. People from all kinds of situations can unite to talk and support, listen and learn, agree and disagree.

On October 9th, Zoom was the Stoa. We’ve been physically separated from so many loved ones due to coronavirus, but at Stoicon 2021 modern Stoics connected meaningfully. Perhaps my disco years weren’t totally wasted, and Debbie Harry was right when she sang ‘I am always touched by your presence dear’. We were virtually together, and the closeness was touching.

 

Whenever you want to cheer yourself, think of the qualities of your fellows – the energy of one, for example, the decency of another, the generosity of a third, some other merit in a fourth. There is nothing so cheering as the stamp of virtues manifest in the character of colleagues – and the greater the collective incidence, the better. So keep them ready to hand. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6, 48)

 

Last year Alison McCone graduated from The Open University with a B.A.(Hons.) in Philosophy and Psychological Studies. She also recently completed a thesis to earn a Diploma in Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. She is a lifelong learner of philosophy particularly in relation to well-being. She is currently self-employed and also works voluntarily as a mentor at Fighting Words in Ireland.

 

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