“It’s like weaving: the weaver does not make the wool, he makes the best use of the wool he’s been given.” Epictetus
A few years ago, during Stoic Week I was presented with a wonderful gift. The invitation to contribute to the Stoicism Today blog by writing about my experiences of Stoic philosophy. Under my veil of ignorance and cloak of innocence I had wandered into a world of classical beauty and academic prowess. The editor of the blog at that time, Patrick Ussher (a founder member of the Stoicism Today project) published my article despite its lack of university style composition and referencing standards. I hoped it would reach the people outside academia who found refuge in Stoicism as therapy for wellbeing.
My words were attached to a great institution of learning, the University of Exeter, where Stoicism Today (now known as Modern Stoicism) was born. I have since had the opportunity of visiting this beautiful birthplace, navigating the campus down paths and up hills whilst vainly attempting to reach the summit of Cardiac Hill without panting! The Stoicism Today blog was special and some of us were avid followers and contributors, spurring each other on to grow into Stoic skins so we could become more resilient. Some readers were enduring chronic suffering of varying degrees, but it was all equal in relevance to the bearers. Pain as we all know too well is impossible to measure. The gratitude I felt then towards the Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism collective was also immeasurable. My meanderings and reflections seemed to strike a chord with others in the universe as we danced and wrestled with life’s challenges. Not only was my battered self-esteem replenished, my dwindling faith in human nature was gradually restored.
To say I was smitten by Stoicism is an understatement. I named my car “Marcus” and Epictetus’s Enchiridion was tucked in the door pocket leaving no room for a map. My studies in Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy blended perfectly with Stoicism like a match made in heaven. Despite being brought up with religion in the air, the supply in later years was not great enough to sustain my complete belief in a supreme being.
I risk being tried for anti-Franklian ideation, but I firmly believe Logotherapy is more accessible and comprehendible to those who have faith in a higher power. Like on the 12-step programme rolled out to those suffering from addiction it is sometimes the case that God doesn’t show up centre stage when you most need him. Modern Stoicism opens its doors to theists and non-theists, unlike in ancient times when it seems glaringly obvious that the Stoics believed in a God or Gods. I have always leaned towards thinking that God, or something akin to goodness or love, is everywhere – both within us and in the universe around us like a force. This fits well with the Stoic view that we are all one and connected with nature.
This attachment to the natural world around is complemented by the most important thing in life for a Stoic – to be a person of virtue irrespective of the situation you may find yourself in. Was I good enough?, I wondered. We’ve all done things we are ashamed of. Could I balance the scales so that goodness outweighed badness and hence equalled virtuous? Soul-searching doesn’t come near to describing how much introspection and self-monitoring I engaged in. At times those unfortunates around me who had to endure my relentless crusade thought I had completely lost the plot. I had to dig deep as an aspiring Stoic, clearing beds that had become overgrown with weeds of self-doubt and uninvited shame. Getting to know thyself instead of safely remaining with the selves one has created on the journey to fifty-something requires a great deal of one of Stoicism’s virtues, courage.
Thankfully I had help from Viktor Frankl who believed all humans are drawn towards finding meaning in life. He had identified this characteristic in humans long before he had to draw on every ounce of courage to endure the horror of his incarceration in concentration camps. His wisdom (another Stoic virtue) was not only evidence based, as a result of treating patients with suicidal tendencies, it was empirical due to his experiences in those camps of deprivation where many people became dehumanized.
The journey continued with the help of Donald Robertson’s Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Course. By searching within myself to find Stoic goodness in the form of virtue I was able to believe in me. Logotherapy helped to re-establish my innate need for meaning and I renewed my faith in people. As a sensitive and easily hurt person I had spent far too long building fortified walls of self-protection and had become locked in a prison of my own construction. I had to take action, just like the Stoics recommend and Massimo Pigliucci provided much guidance in How To Be A Stoic.
Thank goodness Stoicism is a philosophy that can be applied. Good can come from just sitting around philosophizing over a glass or two of wine in Greece but Stoicism comes into its own when practised. Pick up that Stoic fork and stop worrying about what you’re not doing! Moreover, pay no heed to what you think others should be doing! That is their business and I should be minding my own. For the first time in years instead of doing it my way I had to surrender control. What a shock to the system that was! Mrs. Fixit had to go on a long holiday. Viktor Frankl’s voice was telling me “use the defiant nature of the human spirit”!
Instead of cracking up, I cracked open. I had never before realized how much freedom one can gain from taking a stand against oneself. I hadn’t been born again, but my perspective had changed. I could view things differently. Philosophy of any sort is a great tool if put to proper use. Logic can help the psyche to become more rational as it reasons its way in and out of life’s conundrums. Stoic philosophy has helped me to understand and accept my emotions. I got it all wrong at first. Ignorance caused me to falsely believe that Stoics shouldn’t feel emotions deeply.
I thought I should fight them off like Marcus Aurelius fought off adversity in battle. I believed I could armour myself in preparation for any blow of fate. But no, it is better to go with the movement, feel the sway as you enter choppily affected waters, until you feel calm enough to be your most reasonable self. When you are grounded you can make decisions and intentions to move forward. Temperance, one of the other Stoic virtues, springs to mind and can be interpreted as self-regulation in this instance. Wisdom will come to you more easily when you are on an even keel.
Justice, the fourth of the Stoic virtues, is probably the one I struggled with most of all. We don’t live in a just world and there is far too much unnecessary suffering and hurt all around. In the early days I sometimes thought why can’t everyone be logical and rational by adopting the Stoic approach to life? As so humorously highlighted by Tim LeBon at Stoicon 2018, Basil Fawlty beating up his broken-down car with a branch is the antithesis of Stoic behaviour. Why doesn’t he ask Seneca for help to manage his anger? The Basils of this world may benefit from some intervention, but they are free agents capable of making their own choices.
Stoicism is not for everyone. A true Stoic would not attempt to badger or coerce. They would keep their own house in order and want only the very best life for their fellow citizens in the universe. Perhaps the ancient Stoics were a bit imperious, condescending and esoteric. Move over and make way for the modern Stoics who are informed, empathic and ethical beings.
Stoic Week is a wonderful opportunity to begin or rekindle a relationship with this effective approach to living a good life. I shall relish the chance to renew my friendship. I gave up aspiring to be a Stoic and instead take a more measured and gentle approach. Too much self-monitoring and consistent character improvement can be overwhelming for anxious and obsessive beings to control and manage. However, I continually employ Stoic exercises to help me navigate through life and I shall never break the connection I have with this rich philosophy. I am a free spirit who thankfully found my way home after losing my way. My freedom to be in this world is my meaning. To wake up every day and have the ability to love. What more can one wish for? Now, time to get back to my latest read…… ‘Stoicism’ by John Sellars.
“Philosophy tells us that when we mingle the human and the divine in law and justice, we are destined by nature to gain perfection and be regulated and blessed by the same law and justice as the divine. Because our behaviour will be formed by correct doctrine, we will live happily. We will also bring our life to a happy end, like the people who gracefully play a role in a well-written drama.” – Musonius Rufus
“To dance is to live.” – Snoopy
Alison McCone is currently a student, planning to graduate next May with a BA in Philosophy and Psychological Studies, and hoping to go on to a Masters in Philosophy. She is currently writing a Logotherapy thesis devoted to her husband and two sons, family, and friends. She uses resources from Logotheraphy to help others whenever she is needed.