Here we are, with Stoic Week upon us once again.
This is exciting to me because thousands of new people will be exposed to philosophy for the very first time. I say that half-jokingly, knowing that many people including some who majored in it, think they studied philosophy in school. They didn’t–what they read about and did was an interesting intellectual stimulation but it was not philosophy.
Philosophy, as the Stoics saw it, was not abstraction. It was not theoretical. It was designed to help with the problems of life. And in Ancient Greece and Rome, the problems of life were quite real: murderous tyrants, war, plague, civil strife and banishments existed as very real and daily threats–alongside all the other things we deal with today like jealousy, injuries, greed, sickness, envy, and fear.
The Stoics developed a practical philosophy to make sense of this world, one designed to help its adherents thrive, succeed and live good lives. In my eyes, stoicism posits a very simple premise: We do not control the world around us; we control only how we respond. And so we may as well respond well–respond virtuously.
Stoicism, as passed down to us by Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and a host of other ancients, is a tool for that response. Epictetus’s “handbook” was picked up by everyone fromJames Stockdale to George Washington. Seneca was widely admired by the Christians, Thomas Jefferson and the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Marcus Aurelius proved to be equally inspirational to writers like Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson as he has been for statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Wen Jiabao and Bill Clinton.
What does this all mean? It means that whatever problem you’re dealing with this week–or in this life–stoicism can be of help.
A few favorites:
“Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do.
Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.
Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius
“No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like the gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.” – Marcus Aurelius
“What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a people will never be alone and you may be sure he is a friend to all.” – Seneca
On Other People:
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Don’t let the force of an impressions when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” – Epictetus
On Success or Failure:
“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus
“The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power, but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.” – Seneca
“Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired and openly wish–a lie–for death.” – Seneca
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to stoicism when I was 18 or 19 years old. Not during a week of practice and contemplation, but a week where I nonetheless needed it very badly. I was going through a terrible break up. I was stuck in this apartment with some roommates who I absolutely detested. I was in my second year of college, not sure in which direction to take my life.
A chance encounter led to me picking up Marcus Aurelius and his wonderful Meditations. The wisdom in this book not only helped me with my immediate problems–helped me see some perspective about my romantic woes and helped me realize there was no reason to resent these people I was living with. But more importantly, it set me on an intellectual journey (going “directly to the seat of knowledge” as Marcus put it) that changed my life and set me on a course I never would have expected.
In the years since, stoicism has something that strengthened me in failure, comforted me in pain, gave meaning to events and cautioned humility and conservatism in moments of success. It helped me publish three books–one of which, I can proudly say, is about stoicism. How this all would have played out otherwise, I really have no idea. But what stoicism teaches is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened and that we must be grateful for it–the goodand bad alike.
I am. I am so grateful for the windows and doors that stoicism opened. And I hope for everyone participating in 2014’s Stoic Week that you feel the same. And don’t let it stop after 7 days either.