By Fraser Hibbitt
At the end of the fourth century B.C.E, a wealthy merchant sailed from Phoenicia to a port town in Athens. Though his ship was wrecked along the way, he managed to survive and made his way to Athens. This shipless man, Zeno by name, walked by a bookseller and happened on a book by the philosopher Xenophon. So intrigued by the book that he asked the bookseller if there were any men like the one’s described in the book. The bookseller pointed to a man who happened to be passing by, Crates of Thebes.
Through following Crates, and other popular philosophers of the age, Zeno went on to find his own form of philosophy called Stoicism. Zeno’s philosophy synthesized the contemporaneous currents of philosophical thought to produce a system which sought to ensure the state of eudaimonia (human flourishing, wellness). It was tripartite system built on Logic, Physics and Ethics; Ethics being the key. Logic and Physics were applied to understand the nature of the world and describing the right kind of knowledge, and with this established, one would know how to act in accordance with such laws.
Stoicism had been largely neglected by scholars throughout the course of history; Platonism and Aristotelianism taking the pedestal of philosophy until the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. A wild generalization but it is enough to say Stoicism was neglected. It was only in the late twentieth century that Stoicism started to receive serious scholarly attention. Stoicism provided yet another mode of ethical living which, as the recent popularity in stoic living has shown, is reacting to a sentiment of the modern world.
It is not that Stoicism was not known, but rather that the form which was most recognizable in the writings of Epictetus, Seneca the Younger and Marcus Aurelius, seemed to scholars to lack the coherency of a philosophical system. These Roman writings are ethical. They are thoughts and essays on the nature of life, and in many ways describe and give voice to the idea of eudaimonia.
We have but fragments of the Stoic philosophy as it was taught in Hellenic Athens. As we can see from Zeno’s tripartite formation, Stoicism was systematic and had coherency. What we possess from extent writings of the Roman trio just mentioned is a treasure of advice towards Stoic reflection, reflection towards moral responsibility. Embodied in these writings, we find the vein of Stoicism. Because the system of Zeno, in some way distilled, found its way to these Roman writers, it is approachable from a completely different standpoint than if we were first confronted by the Logic, or the Physics, side of Stoicism. The very thing that caused it to be neglected by scholars is also the thing that gave Stoicism its resonance with readers and writers. Seneca proved a major influence in the Renaissance; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations purportedly being held in high esteem by Goethe, Fredrick the Great, John Stuart Mill and Mathew Arnold.
This distillation of Stoicism helped preserve attention until the scholarly work began. It is wonderful instance of history living between the lines. The Roman Stoics provided the psychological apparatus of Stoic thinking. It is all the more remarkable when we come to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, this symbol of Stoic life. Written with such pathos, not only for its content, but for its very existence. It was not meant to be a book to be read, or circulated, but rather the externalization of a lonely and virtuous mind. The man, being Emperor of the Roman Empire, could have had anything he desired, could have treated people anyway he saw fit. Yet, he does away with these things by the power of reflective writing. He summons the Stoic way reminding himself time and time again to be virtuous, to understand what is in his control, to play his part that has been proffered to him. He has been called the brooding Stoic and it is obvious why: the constant worries, the constant supplications, the vehement discussions over procedures, all which he tried to meet with a controlled, consistent outlook. This tension required him to write a book to himself, one which could bring him equanimity in times of strife: ‘withdraw into yourself. Our master-reason asks no more than to act justly, and thereby to achieve calm’.
Portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, from The Walters Art Museum, superimposed over Panini’s painting View of the Campidoglio in Rome. From THE COLLECTOR.
The conversation with Stoicism which the Roman writers preserved is now a dynamic one in philosophy. The reinvigoration of Stoicism appeals as a mode of ethics differing from that of mainstream utilitarianism and the idea of a rule based moral system; or, offering one in contingency with the two. The Stoic enterprise, very much like certain Eastern Buddhist ethics, prides itself on its inclusivity. What we gauge from Plato’s Republic is that everyone has a place in society and should be kept to it; the philosopher being the king. Aristotle, in another way, conceded that a certain amount of external goods was required to live the life of virtue. The Stoic way, however, concludes that it is unimportant which walk of life one has been accustomed to, the virtuous life is for all. Indeed, the very idea of the ‘Cosmopolitan’ is said to have begun with the Stoics. One is not detained, regulated, by their position on the globe but to the cosmos.
Perhaps the most defining feature of Stoicism, at least what we find in the later Stoics of the Roman Empire and the modernized version of Stoicism, is the idea of concern. We cannot free ourselves from emotion, nor the unexpectedness of the day, we can only control our reaction to these things. The practice of Stoic ethics is the pinnacle of their teaching. The importance of discerning our own area of concern is a way of structuring how to act, and how to feel. What we cannot control need not bother us, what we can control needs our attention. It is not that we are ever free from emotion, we may be troubled by circumstances, people, and react instinctively, but it is our duty as a Stoic to take control, to discern our position and what is worth our attention.
We can then test ourselves when thrown into a state of disarray. Is this situation beyond my control? Have I acted in a way that is moral and rational? Even if all goes wrong, If I have acted in accordance with rationality and moral rectitude then there is nothing more I could have done and so I should no longer attach myself to it. By understanding our own place in nature, and our own rational faculty, we discern what our area of concern is. Ultimately, it is the self. The self feels the emotion and can act in a certain way, and it is up to the self to have the courage to face up to life.
Stoicism’s answer to life is a constant reinforcement of moral virtue. There is no conclusive answer but rather a constant awareness; the Stoic life stands constantly in tension with the vicissitudes of the day. Stoicism has come down to us as a practice, a practice available through reflection and knowledge. The former tripartite system wished to discern the nature of the cosmos precisely so virtue could come to fruition, so one could know how to act. It is simple enough, but in a world divided with social customs, laws, and that vast array of personalities, the individual is bisected at every station of life.
The conversation which Modern Stoicism is having is yet another one where a philosophical system is trying to understand and come to terms with its own culture. Modern culture, for many, does not offer such an immediacy of obvious roles in society, and along with its prevailing secular nature, it seems to expand personal meaning, and therefore personal attention, in a complex and disorientating manner. We are at once influenced by the idea of the self and the social ladder whilst also being told of the global crisis which holds that our area of attention should be directed outwards, towards the earth. Yet here lies the very heart of Stoicism; it is not a retreat into the self to douse the pain in thoughts that we are all insignificant, Stoicism is the dynamic between the self and morality – morality which always involves something outside of the self. Stoicism reminds one to reflect and engage with our values so we can have the courage to re-produce them where it matters.
It may be just as well to believe with Zeno and Aurelius that the universe began with fire and will ultimately be destroyed by fire, where again, it will be reborn – given what modern physics can tell us on such teleological matters. This is merely an example of Stoic comfort. By all accounts, Aurelius did not stop serving as emperor because the cyclical nature of the universe but knowing the cyclical nature of the universe helped him to realize his duty. Modern Stoicism, too, is asking us not to forego our duties but to create vigilance towards what these Stoic comforts could be in our own time. The act of exhuming ancient Stoicism has acted as a symbol of our need for ethical answers to modern questions; the preservation of our duties, and the need to understand our place in the world.
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Other writings by Fraser Hibbitt include Houses of Great Minds and an update on the Kepler Mission.
The blog’s last post was on the Spring Equinox.