Column: Stoicism in the twenty-first century (Part one of three)

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
July 22nd, 2019

What is your “Philosophy of Life?”

Recently, I’ve learned in various media commenting on cultural trends that an ancient philosophy, Stoicism, is making a comeback in the 21st century, to address the human condition and crisis of our particular moment in time. How and why people adopt a philosophy interests me. So I am going to indulge in a reading of the philosophy myself — looking at the appeal and meaning of Stoicism — inspired by a Stoic’s manifesto.

I begin with the definition found in Wikipedia.

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and that external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or badin themselves (adiaphora), but have value as “material for virtue to act upon”. The Stoics …  they believed people should aim to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is “in accord with nature“. 

Many Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus — emphasized that because “virtue is sufficient for happiness“, a sage would be emotionally resilient to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase “stoic calm.”  The “ethical” Stoic holds that only a “Sage” can be considered truly free, and that all moral corruptions are equally vicious. Stoicism flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD.

A note about historical context

Readers might very well ask how a philosophy with roots 2300 years old could have much value for people of this, the post-modern age? A quick reply would be that philosophy, unlike religious belief or dogma, should be able to persist despite the passage of time and accumulation of knowledge by science, for philosophy aims to find perennial, universal, trans-cultural statements about the human condition that aren’t bound to place, people, time, or society. The “level [progress?] of development” of humankind’s possibilities might or might not affect philosophy’s power to explain life. In the 21st century West, some think science is sufficient.

The West is one of a small number of macro-cosmic human civilizations and cultures; Arnold Toynbee famously enumerated only 22 human civilizations in history. I have written extensively in the Arc about the West and its historic role.

But philosophy does not always translate well from one people or era to another. The time of original Stoicism was the classical world of Greek and Roman dominance of Europe, and when Greco-Roman civilization fell into the Dark Ages, Stoicism was lost as the Christian religion became the matrix of post-imperial Europe.

Christianity has both Hellenic and Semitic {Greek and Jewish] original roots. Its influence on the Western mind after 2000 years is profoundly laid at the roots of our consciousness.

Two things seem to me outstanding differences between the ancients of imperial Roman times and our own: first, the West’s conscience has been formed through the dominance of Christianity as the foundation of Western consciousness, whereas the ancients had not been formed under this influence.

The second fact: we now regard human slavery as unconscionable because Christian ethics eventually concluded it is an abhorrent sin to enslave humans, whereas Socrates and Marcus Aurelius considered slavery unremarkable and so far as we know had no moral objection to it. People who lived casually with human slavery as part of normal life are alien to paradigmatic consciousness in 21st  century Westerners.

Two celebrated ancient Stoics

 I begin the exploration with words from the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, author of Meditations, and Epictetus, best-known Stoic of Roman times (1st century CE).

One Roman Caesar tried hard to be both philosopher and king: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”

Certain words will snag your mind, reading this, as not simple for definition: right reason, divine part, heroic truth, nature, happy. Use your best judgment.

Aurelius enjoys the highest repute among all the emperors who ever ruled Rome.

As for Epictetus, I quote his line a lot: “People are not disturbed by events but by their opinions of events.”  Remember this as you consume “the news.” Epictetus fled Rome when political peril threatened him, and stayed away to live a rural life when he could have gone back to the imperial capital. Life is better outside massive cities.

Modern Western Science

One might say that our modern science renders old philosophies obsolete. Not so. Materialist science has revolutionized the West, and the world, yet science is not in the same category of thinking as philosophy; science does not alter the particular truths philosophy attempts to reveal. Materialism as a philosophy is not in harmony with the Stoicism of the ancients for whom the soul was as real as the body. Materialism rejects deities, soul, spirit — and any mystery it cannot explain yet, it assumes it will one day know.

Applying materialist science to know human existential mysteries is a category error.

A summary Manifesto of Stoic thinking

There is a piece of advice in a prose-poem most everyone seems to know, which I first encountered as a poster on the wall of a friend in my first week at university in 1973. I will dissect it one point at a time. It is the summary of Stoicism, written by American Max Ehrmann, which he called The Desiderata and copyrighted in 1927 [*or in 1948; I have found both dates cited online, but Ehrmann died in 1945].

Many people believe, mistakenly, that this was engraved in a church in Baltimore dated 1692. Why the confusion? Here is the explanation offered on the website “Snopes”,  the myth-debunking online fact-checker:

Confusion over Desiderata’s authorship arose in 1956 when a Maryland pastor used the poem in a collection of mimeographed material for the congregation of Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore. He’d been fond of essays and poems of an inspirational nature, and it was often his practice to mimeograph writings he liked, form them into booklets, and place them in pews around the church. The Desiderata booklet was printed on letterhead emblazoned “Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, A.D. 1692″ (the year of the church’s founding). Some member of that congregation must have liked the poem well enough to pass along to a friend. From there it passed through many hands, along the way losing the attribution to Max Ehrmann and gaining — through a muddling of the letterhead’s message — the claim that the work itself had been discovered in Old St. Paul’s church in 1692. The poem then found a foothold in California, where San Francisco’s “flower children” embraced it delightedly as a centuries-old affirmation of their philosophy of love and peace. From there it spread as underground printers, thinking they were dealing with a work in the public domain, started cranking out inexpensive posters.”

And one of those posters made its way to my friend’s wall at university…

The Desiderata, piece by piece:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

Being quiet and slow seems to me to be an indisputably good piece of advice for modern people who live in more noise and haste than any humans before us. Being quiet alone, in solitude, is even better.

Go outward: among other people in the world, and be a silent witness. As much as you are an active, “noisy” participant in the affairs of the outer world, be a quiet presence even more.

I believe that the teaching of the Tao supplements this insight; the sage [ = “holy/enlightened person, possessing wisdom/aligned with Tao”] is urged to do very little, do only and precisely what would be best for the People/world.

Once the sage has done the necessary, he will “withdraw” into obscurity so that the People are unaware of what she has done. Action by the Sage perfectly in alignment with the Tao is invisible or “non-interfering.” In Taoist terms, wei wu wei. Do non-action. Act not-doing.

Go inward: placidly, serenely; feel your [noisy, hasty] emotion fully, without reacting; find your deeper mind and be conscious of what messages your body is sending you. No one can promise you placidity or peace “inside there” — in your private interior space that no one else can enter — for personal peace is one of the qualities each of us must work to create. Desiderata will say more about peace.

Silence and peace are not synonyms by any means; what Ehrmann says here is that in some sense we all know and can “remember” that we can experience the latter when we have the former. [Maybe we all knew Peace before we incarnated into our material bodies, but this is not a specific Stoic teaching. Still, Stoics talk about God and human soul, and incarnation in a body is a corollary of belief in soul].

As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

In our moment, many observers are rightly upset that modern Western humans want nothing to do with people who are not similar to themselves; we are notoriously creating private “bubbles” and “silos” of people with whom we will not argue, in our “online communities.”

In the USA, analysts of social phenomena and cultural trends have noticed how today it is politics that divide people geographically, with entire neighbourhoods in cities, and entire regions within counties or States, where everyone is a Republican or a Democrat. Ehrmann urges us to be clear who we are, but not let that prevent us having amicable relations with all — no matter our differences with them. This behaviour used to seem possible; is it probable in 2019?

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

“Truth …” Our term of reference is problematic. A Roman patrician asked rabbi Jesus of Nazareth “What is truth?” and got no answer, according to a single written source. I am going to leave the question unanswered. It is too ambiguous when it is unqualified by an adjective.

The question is probed deeply in two essays here:



Ehrmann uses a personal adjective to qualify the noun: “your truth.” He specifies a particular kind of truth. Significantly, it is not absolute, final, cosmic Truth. It is the truth of one person, one perspective, one experience, one consciousness.

Anyone who ever has attempted to broadcast to other people one’s own “truth” has to wrestle with the question of motivation. “Why is it important to tell other people what I think is true – how will it make any difference?”  I ask myself this.

Done quietly and clearly, without offensive or aggressive language, “speaking one’s truth” is recognized as a positive and virtuous act, a part of being true to who you are. Being true to who you are is a Stoic virtue, good in itself.

A fine recent example in Canadian public life is Jody Wilson-Raybould telling the House of Commons that she wanted an opportunity to “speak my truth” about a matter touching on her work as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General; she generally won quite positive regard for her morality, while still not being able to convince everyone that “her truth” was the right one among competing truths. She was not “speaking truth to power” so much as speaking it to the Canadian public, and she herself had been a person of influence and power in government.

As for listening to other people, no matter their state of education or intelligence, it is simply good practice to understand another person’s inner experience of being. As Charles Eisenstein says so well, we must ask ourselves when in conversation with another person, “What does it feel like to be this person?”

We will disagree with others, but we must exercise compassion and empathy for their experiences. Judging another as “dull” or “ignorant” will inhibit your empathy; don’t judge them, understand them. Do as loving parents do with their child.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

Is it easy to avoid people one finds obnoxious? Not always. Family and social living, and work-life circumstance, forces us to be in company with vexatious persons we might well choose not to accompany if we had perfect freedom. But when we can avoid them, without hurt to ourselves or others we love, then we should.

Again, notice, “loud” [= “noise”] is not a phenomenon to tolerate in your life, if you want personal spiritual peace. Aggression is a defect of character, clearly, but one must, without aggression, not surrender essential qualities of self. There is a consciously-designed balance between maintaining integrity and being so assertive that other people perceive you as aggressive. Humility is a Stoic virtue, and a Taoist one. One is urged to cultivate it, neither surrendering nor offending.

I notice more and more myself, at my advanced age of 67, that I and my age-peers feel that one privilege of elder-age-status is to not tolerate “bullshit” from people anymore. Knowing that we did indeed put up with a lot of unpleasant, inauthentic people telling us untruthful things, in unwelcomed-but-unavoidable situations in our past, we refuse to do that now.

Elders have graduated from times of accepting crap from people, because now we can avoid them.

It is also one of the recognized privileges of being wealthy and powerful, possessing high status and personal influence, to eliminate bothersome people from one’s circles, to surround oneself only with those who will not disturb or vex the spirits.

“Rank has its privileges.” Keeping vexatious persons away from you is one.


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