Frances Lyndale discusses the life of a 21st Century Stoic, exploring which aspects of Stoic philosophy can be particularly helpful for the fast pace of modern life. Frances’ piece raises interesting questions: how much Stoicism is enough? Should the whole of the philosophy be revived or just particular parts of it (in the which case, which parts?)…join the debate below!
The Life of a 21st Century Stoic
The revival of any ancient philosophy must be sympathetic to the original birthplace. Whilst we must acknowledge that Stoicism originates in antiquity, we are now existing in modern times; the era of developing technology, growing knowledge and expanding minds. If we are to produce a successful revival of Stoicism, we must make it accessible and functional in modernity. However, the transition from theoretical to practical Stoicism can seem a daunting leap for some 21st Century hopefuls. This is because it is an art, a practice, a way of life. This occurs not overnight, but as an ongoing process. The modification of Stoicism allows for the life of a 21st Century Stoic to become an actuality; a realistic and practical account of the reformation of an ancient Stoic.
This introduces a key concern at the heart of 21st Stoicism. If we choose to revive only the elements that are to our liking and relevance of the philosophy, then is this still Stoicism? The idea of cherry-picking favourable aspects calls for an evaluation of the philosophy itself. Here, we can make reference to the ‘Theseus Ship Paradox’ introduced by Plutarch and discussed by both ancient and contemporary philosophers (Plutarch’s Vita Thesei, 22-23). The summary of the paradox is that Theseus’ ancient ship is in need of some serious TLC and begins the road to recovery by replacing the old, decaying planks with new timber. If all of the parts of the ship are replaced, what then remains of the original ship? This provocative metaphor has been taken a step further by Hobbes, bringing a new dimension to the paradox; if the original decaying planks were somehow restored to make an entirely new ship in addition to the revived ship, then which ship is closer to the original? Perhaps it is exactly this reassembled model of the ship which retains the most rights to the original, since it is made of the same foundations, only constructed in a different way. Does it then follow that the 21st Century Stoic is entitled to claim themselves as an original yet ‘new and improved’ version of the ancient? Whilst it could be argued that what remains of the philosophy is not Stoicism, perhaps the beneficiaries of pursuing a life of fulfilment and happiness overrides the importance of originality. To prevent the literal and metaphorical disintegration of Theseus’ ship, it must be revived to keep in tune with the changing times; the philosophy of Stoicism is kept alive through the life of a 21st Century Stoic.
There are certain aspects of the ancient philosophy that may be harder than others to become integrated into modernity with a smooth transition, hence the popularised cherry-picking route. One of the founding principles behind Stoicism, for example, is to live in accordance with the cosmos. This is practiced by understanding yourself to be a part of a much wider picture; the unity of humanity. This perspective on the whole of nature is often likened to God’s perspective within the ancient philosophy, not unlike Spinoza’s mergence of God/nature. But we are finite beings, unlike the divinity, and so this is a difficult perspective to adopt. However, if we are introducing Stoicism into aspects of modern life such as through cognitive-behavioural therapy exercises, supported by the NHS, then topics such as ‘to live in accordance with nature’ may not be appreciated as they once were. Whereas other principles such as to ‘retreat into yourself’ coined by Aurelius in his Meditations, can be utilised within practices today such as mindfulness. Whilst I have been familiar with the practice of mindfulness for a few years, I met it with great scepticism at the prospect of paying someone to sit quietly in a room with 10 other people. But since discovering Stoicism and exploring the practice myself, I have experienced the benefits and witnessed the change. Intimidating as it may seem, mindfulness does not need to be an intense 5 hour session in order to gain the benefits of peace of mind. Mindfulness can intertwine with daily routines, easily in reach to any 21st Century Stoic – be it through mindful eating, mindful walking, or simple awareness of the pace of life and the capacity we share to enjoy the power of our minds. By connecting to the inner self and the present moment, this enables one to remain calm and rational when otherwise one could lose their grasp from the stress caused from externals. Rush hour, lateness, coldness, frustration at ‘one of those days’ – these are all excellent examples of when mindfulness can be practiced effectively and easily. Whilst there is not a definitive connection between ancient Stoicism and mindfulness, perhaps this modern practice is but one way we have adapted and borrowed techniques from the past to help us with the now. The 21st Century Stoic should help to alleviate the raised eyebrows and sceptical response to the revival of Stoicism.
Throughout the three years of my degree in Philosophy, I have been greeted with many curiosities and confusion by friends, family and the like. A typical question is; “A degree in Philosophy? Do you just sit around and think all day?” Whilst in some regard this is true, the complexities surrounding such a varied degree are difficult to confine in a small-talk conversation with your parent’s, neighbours, sister’s friend. Stoicism is but one branch of philosophy; the Hellenistic branch, introduced into the post-Plato world. This period had a unified aim to achieve tranquil lives through living the philosophy they propose. To re-introduce a philosophy of this kind into modernity, it must be explained with the understanding that there will be equal curiosity and confusion. It is almost as if we must create a proposal containing a bullet-point style CV filled with punchy one-liners to catch the attention of any possible interest. The difficultly here lies in whether the complexity of Stoicism can then be formulated into an A4 Microsoft Word document in Times New Roman, font size 12; and here we find ourselves back at Theseus’ ship. However, it is this method exactly that abides by the world we now live in; a competitive, technology-driven world with a desperate need for quick solutions to long problems. The idea of the renewed Stoicism ticks the right boxes and consents to modern day. It can be integrated into many aspects of contemporary life, from dealing with your temperamental work computer to using the ever unreliable city bus service, to the stronger emotion orientated situations such as coping with loss. I hope that the success of modern Stoicism will encourage us to be more open to accepting the once-unknown to help lead better, happier lives. It is in this respect that I welcome the 21st Century Stoic with open arms
More about Frances:
Frances Lyndale, 3rd year BA Philosophy Student at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Currently working on a dissertation on the revival of Stoicism in modern times.