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

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
August 1st, 2019

Part Two

I began an exploration of a Stoic prose-poem, The Desiderata, in the last edition of the column, and continue it in this one. Stoicism is interesting in its own right, but also because it has been enjoying a modern revival.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

This is very practical advice, and its truth seems pretty self-evident — but the forces arrayed against us implementing it are formidable. Our era is saturated with advertising like no other in history, and the pressure to compare oneself to others is the foundation-stone of advertising psychology.

In the 21st century West, one must be extremely conscious and strong-minded not to compare oneself to others. The effort is worth it. You may never be popular, but your heart will experience greater depths of satisfaction.

Non-competition is also a virtue [teh] taught in Taoist tradition:

“You can’t keep standing on tiptoe or walk in leaps and bounds.

You can’t shine by showing off or get ahead by pushing.

Self-satisfied people do no good, self-promoters never grow up.

Such stuff is to the Tao as garbage is to food or a tumor to the body,


The follower of the Way avoids it.”            — [ U. K. Le Guin version. Find it here

https://astudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/lao-tzu_-tao-te-ching_-a-book-a-ursula-k-le-guin.pdf  ]

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Again, sound practical advice based on experiential evidence; one cannot be constantly living in future plans nor be content in work that is meaningless.

Not all people, however, have “careers” — some must simply labour at jobs, under the control of bosses who care little for one’s sense of meaning. Our era of high capitalism is worse for demeaning labour than many times before. Note that adjective: “demeaning” — subtracting meaning. Humans want meaning. We want it desperately, says author Adam Gopnik. “Forced to choose between truth and meaning, humans will always opt for meaning,” he writes. I tend to agree.

One must find satisfactions away from oppressive work; still, the struggle to make one’s work meaningful is worth waging. Perhaps in the world Eisenstein hopes for us, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,”  the horrid work conditions we know exist now will be eliminated.

An excellent piece on work, poverty, and capitalism can be found in Harper’s, here:


Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Personally I find this inspiring, because I tend toward a misanthropic view of humankind, and I need reminding that human striving for ideals and heroism is not uncommon. The warning here to beware of trickery is more apt than ever in the environment of cyber-reality online, and no ancient Stoic could have foreseen the deluge of fake “facts” inundating the minds of human beings today. The ancient Romans had a simple slogan for people in the marketplace: Caveat emptor! Consumer, be aware. Do not compare yourself with others, nor believe them when their motives are self-interested.

Be yourself.

My earlier remarks about self-knowledge apply here. Knowing what self is, what is the truth about one’s identity and what is mere ego and not essential personhood, is a life-time’s study. Quite literally. It is the work of a lifetime to discover who “you” are, and what your life is for. In the wonderful poetry of Joni Mitchell, “I don’t know who I am, and Life’s for learning. We are stardust…”

It is one of the agreed benefits of meditation that it quiets your too-busy mind and introduces you to yourself. Your Self is under your control; when the Delphic oracle pronounced “gnothi seauton” — know yourself – as its primary advice, and Socrates took this oracular proverb as his guide for “truth, beauty, and goodness,” the mind of the West might be said to have begun to form a unique human pattern.

It is merely an opinion, that each of us is a Self. Here are three essays on the subject I find worthy of reference.




Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Feigning affection – being less than genuine in your emotional expressions toward others – must be avoided. Affection especially ought not be faked, but always authentic. Being yourself demands sincerity: genuine speech or no speech at all.

And love…? This is the human condition’s redeeming feature. Much about being human is hard. Loving is humanity at its best.

I have refused the question, “what is wisdom?” I also refuse “what is love?” More about that question is pursued in an Aeon essay here: 


We ought not give up on love, ever, Ehrmann cautions. It always springs back.

Aridity is endemic in the tedium of life, and disenchantment or disillusion a constant threat when one experiences loss and failure. But love does not fail to return if you let it. Like the grass it grows, given any opportunity.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

From my perspective as an elderly man (67), the culture I live in is youth-obsessed. No one wants to admit to failings or feebleness once easily-admitted by people of the past. Our market culture offers vast arrays of products and services to stop aging having any effect on the person who has the “right attitude” and appropriate willpower to deny it. The person who “surrenders” to aging can expect to be criticized from a loud section of public opinion that declares “age is a choice and you can refuse to age”. There are also many voices raised against stupid youth-obsession; we attempt to re-instate elders as respected members of society with wisdom needed by the young. Our wisdom is not scientific, it is humanist.

The elder who experiences aging as shameful, humiliating, and embarrassing, has been infected by the worse inclinations of our culture, in my opinion.

Personally, I know people in either camp: those who believe passionately that to be as “productive” now as when younger, to seek such quantities of sex and travel and education in retirement as they ever enjoyed in previous decades, is the golden grail: for them, it is a proud declaration — “ I am soooo busy!”

I align with those who “gracefully surrender” to being older and accept changed expectations, but do not inhibit their enjoyment of what life offers.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

A very straightforward tip to coping with misfortune, referring back to the “changing fortunes of time” mentioned earlier. As the Buddha taught, there will be misfortune and suffering in every life, as a basic fact [“the first noble truth”] of the human condition.

How does one manage suffering, and pass through it to better times? It is not a simple thing to give advice that will be universal, applicable to all persons no matter their circumstance. I notice with sorrow that people seem ready to judge others for not “getting over it” [It” is any strong unpleasant emotion like grief, loss, anger] within the time limit the critic decides is the “right amount” of time for suffering.

No one has the right to determine your time. No friend will condemn you for how long you need to mourn. Your inherent sense of health will lead you out of it.

Strength of spirit is not one thing for all people. “Spirit” is an especially problematic concept, and as I alluded to earlier, thorough-going materialists reject its reality.

Pushed to define spiritual strength, I would say this: the inner sense that one has an essential self not touched by any outward event, the conviction that one survives all trials and tribulation by enduring the pain, taking relief and comfort from loved ones, trusting that indeed there is a natural process of return to wholesomeness. To know “this too shall pass” is an essential content of strength of spirit.

How to nurture this strength is not clear. But experiencing silence alone, knowing and being genuine to oneself, loving other people and keeping them close to your heart, are certainly ingredients in the recipe. One may not know whether one has strength until it is tested.

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

In this statement, it seems to me, Ehrmann and his modern Stoic prose-poem indicate a challenge but fail to really get to grips with the magnitude of our crises.

A modern person is susceptible to pressure toward fearful imagining greater than humans in every other time and place in human history. We are at the mercy of so many sources of information, it seems to me miraculous that mental illness is not an even greater threat to health than we know it to be, and I include all varieties of addiction in this. The fact that we are a “scientific” culture and do not believe in demons or other monsters is not helping us deal with our fear. Science can add to our fears in ways superstition never did in the past.

It falls to the individual to be self-healing in many instances, and the choice of therapies and cures is vast and daunting in modern conditions. I believe the ancients lived in a time when they were subject to much less danger of the kind of mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual threats that modern people face.

Loneliness and fatigue [lack of sleep] are two demonstrably-huge issues for modern people, labelled as “epidemics in public health” according to much reputable scientific research. Our multitudes of therapies and funded public-healthcare systems seem inadequate. Ancient people simply never faced the problem of loneliness now encountered by moderns. Nor was sleeping sufficiently a widespread problem.

I still hold Ehrmann’s wisdom in high esteem. But here, the Stoic has too little to offer a modern mind for comfort. Modern individuals lead pressurized lives under mental and spiritual freight unimagined by the ancients, just as our material “power over nature” was unimagined by them. The West exults in its mastery of matter while the experienced lives of humans in modernity feels alienated, meaningless, empty.

Charles Eisenstein is my favourite writer on the subject of life in 21st century spiritual impoverishment:

I share with dreamers, Utopians, and teenagers an unreasonable intuition of a magnificent potential, that life and the world can be more than we have made of them. What error, then, what delusion has led us to accept the lesser lives and the lesser world we find ourselves in today? What has rendered us helpless to resist the ugliness, pollution, injustice, and downright horror that have risen to engulf the planet in the last few centuries? What calamity has so resigned us to it, that we call this the human condition?”




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