The Aspiring Stoic
Linus Van Pelt, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)
” When someone asked him if women also should study philosophy, he began to teach, along lines like the following, how they should do it. For one thing, he said, women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men – the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honourable or shameful. Likewise the female has also the same senses as the male: seeing, hearing, ability to smell, and the rest. Likewise, too, each has the same parts of the body, and neither one has more than the other. In addition, a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these.”
Musonius Rufus, Lecture Three: That Women Too Should Study Philosophy
I remember it so vividly and the memory will always be etched in my mind. As a student of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy in Ireland, I had been introduced to the ancient school of Stoic philosophy. Since childhood I had been familiar with the term stoic, used in the verbal sense to describe a highly disciplined individual averse to outward displays of emotion. I especially associated it with a person who showed bravery in terms of adversity, a person in control of their own mind, a person who would be a tower of strength to those around them. We have all encountered such people, if we’re very fortunate it can be a family member we know as a child, maybe a teacher or mentor we learn from as a young adult, or maybe a wise spiritual person we turn to in the latter part of our lives.
The first Stoic I met was Marcus Aurelius, who wrote The Meditations day by day like a diary, giving an account of how he felt in varying circumstances, through the ups and downs of his everyday life, a response perhaps to his interminable inner voice. I have always written a daily diary but I learnt how to expand on this by using Stoic journaling techniques to record events either inside or outside my control. I discovered that writing about things I felt grateful for, instead of just thinking of them, made them more valuable. On a guided mindfulness walk through a leafy wooded glade I gained an even deeper insight into my love of nature and Stoic prosoche became a presence in my existence.
My next lesson was provided by Jules Evans in his book “Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations” and I yearned to learn more about the links between Ancient Philosophy and psychotherapy. At times I felt the occasional twinge of regret at not accepting my offer to study philosophy in my youthful days of 1982. But for Stoics, actions speak louder than words so it was time to dig deeper and go into Stoic rehabilitation. My participation in Stoic Week 2013 began. During a dreary, cold and damp Irish winter week I was provided with the tools and guidance to try as best as I could to “live like a Stoic”.
By now I was hooked, and my Stoic fantasy family was growing. Epictetus was on my left shoulder, advising against self-inflicted motherhood slavery while Musonius Rufus was on the right one, providing sage marriage guidance. Seneca accompanied me on a flight, his excruciatingly painful death helped to calm my anxious thoughts. I was rapidly gaining intellectual and experiential proof that the Stoics had the right approach to emotional wellbeing, but I started to self-examine once more and ask the big question – am I virtuous enough to be aspiring to these great heroes of antiquity?
I am human after all, I like to have fun and transcend my self through my love of humour, music, and especially dancing. Dancing, since being a small child has always been a way to reach the ecstatic. Would the logos hold sway if I was spied from above, dancing around in the privacy of my kitchen to Lady Gaga? Donald Robertson came to my rescue when I discovered the following in his book “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” –
“Socrates also taught his students that we should keep the body fit through appropriate physical exercise. He apparently favoured dancing alone, at daybreak, as a form of physical exercise, because it involved the whole body rather than just some parts.”
I pictured Socrates boogying on down as the sun rose, and breathed a sigh of relief. But I still was in a state of flux. In their quest for therapeutic treatment of the psyche did ancient Stoics look on the bright side of life? Would I be consumed by the Divine Fire if I seized the opportunity to see the funny side of our crazy world, and laugh instead of cry?
To my great joy I found an article by Dr. John Barnett, a research psychologist for the U.S. Army Research Institute and a member of the Stoic community. He writes of, “Chrysippus of Soli, the third head of the Stoic school. Legend has it that when he was 73 years old, he saw a donkey eating a plate of figs from a table in the garden. When the lady of the house came out and saw the donkey had eaten her figs, she was understandably outraged. Chrysippus, on the other hand, saw the humour in it, and said to her ‘he’s waiting for his wine!’ Chrysippus thought this incredibly funny – he laughed so hard he died.”
Stoicism is now part of me as I have found myself on a journey of self-discovery trying to grow into a philosophy to which I belong. Excellent articles and personal insights appear here regularly on the Stoicism Today website, and of special educational value are audio lectures by Professor Christopher Gill. My gratitude to this wonderful wealth of Stoic resources knows no bounds. Stoicism is so important to me that my journey won’t come to an end. To be at one with nature, in the search for tranquility by living a life of virtue is not an easy thing to aspire to, but the rewards are well worth the effort. More blows of fate and times of suffering lie ahead, but the great Stoics have given me access to a security blanket for my soul.
“The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things. Secondly, when it turns away from another human being, or is carried so far in opposition as to intend him no harm – such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger. A soul harms itself, thirdly whenever it dissimilates, doing or saying anything feigned or false. Fifthly, when it fails, to direct any of its own actions or impulses to a goal, but acts at random, without conscious attention – whereas even the most trivial action should be undertaken in reference to the end. And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state – the Universe”. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations