by Hafiz Muhammad Zunair
Is it an art of not caring or a virtuous practice of self-improvement? Is it a state of hopelessness or a shield against self-defeating attitudes? Is a self-centered philosophy or is it aimed at the collective good of the society?
In the end, all these questions converge to one fundamental query; what Stoicism actually is in the truest sense of the term?
In simplest of the words, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics and attitudes, which can help an individual in achieving a state of calmness — ataraxia — by carefully understanding and mastering the Cause-Effect equation.
Based on the principles of practical wisdom, moderation, justice, and courage, Stoicism has proved to be one of the most impactful, and definitely useful, philosophies as even today — after almost 2400 years, Stoicism is still a subject of intense intellectual discourse.
Origin of the Philosophy:
In terms of the origin of this philosophy, the concept of Stoicism came into being during the Hellenistic period — the period between the death of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Empire — and it was first expounded by Zeno of Cyprus around 300 BCE.
Later, during the times of the Roman Empire, Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, further developed the philosophy of Stoicism by writing one of the most well-known books on Stoicism — The Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium. (Translation: Moral Epistles and Letters from a Stoic)
Like stoics before him, Seneca is first and foremost interested in ethics. However, Seneca isn’t much interested in an ideal/wise person — who has been envisioned by the earlier stoics — rather his theory is more realistic — focusing on the progressor, an individual who tries his best to move forward towards that ideal.
Seneca, through his work, popularized the philosophy of Stoicism and was one of the major reasons for the revival of Stoicism during the Renaissance. Moreover, Seneca’s contribution can be weighed by considering the fact that even today, Senecan Though is considered to be of pivotal significance vis-a-vis the philosophy of Stoicism.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
Unfortunately, Seneca had to kill himself as his emperor, Nero ordered him to do so.
Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The suicide of Seneca (1871), Museo del Prado (Source: Wikipedia)
Seneca died but, fortunately, Stoicism survived as following the death of Seneca, two extra-ordinary individuals brought the philosophy of Stoicism forward — the first one was a slave, Epictetus, and secondwas an emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were believers of applying philosophy in practical life and the reflection of this belief can be easily found in their most-known works vis-a-vis Stoicism.
Although Epictetus didn’t write any book, yet his pupil Arrian transcribed and compiled a number of Epictetus’s works including Discourses of Epictetus and Enchiridion.
According to Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control and we can’t control what is happening around us. However, we can control our attitude towards these events by following a certain set of principles.
Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, remained occupied with fighting the Germanic threat but while on a campaign, he wrote arguably the greatest text available on ancient stoic philosophy — Meditations.
Meditations were notes written by Marcus Aurelius to remind himself of certain things; to keep himself prepared each morning to face dishonesty and treachery.
Cardinal Principles of Stoicism:
For further understanding of the concept of Stoicism, we have to go back to Zeno, who was of the view that Stoicism is based on the principles of virtue, tolerance, and self-control.
Let me explain!
We all are well-aware of the fact everything around us, be it any event, is happening through a certain Cause-Effect equation. Right?
Now, irrespective of how strong or great we are, none of us has a say in whatever is happening around us. However, all of us have a choice to react to the events, happening around us. We can either react poorly or we can react with maturity. And that’s where the concept of Stoicism comes into play.
According to the philosophy of Stoicism, one has complete authority over how he reacts to a certain event and it is his attitude, which can actually affect his life, not the surrounding events.
There is no denying that we don’t have much control over the events affecting us but we have complete control over how we approach all these events.
Therefore, stoics don’t believe in establishing an ideal society, rather they believe in self-improvement and this can be done by following four cardinal principles, given below.
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Here, Prudence can be considered as an ability to differentiate good from bad and to comprehend complex situations. Also, prudence or practical wisdom is one of the key factors, which can play a pivotal role in helping an individual in navigating through all kinds of circumstances by making the right choices — ultimately leading an individual to happiness.
Be it Stoicism or another practical theory of philosophy, moderation has always been considered a cardinal principle vis-a-vis living a great life. Without practicing self-restraint, I don’t think one can achieve ataraxia or any form of calmness. Our desires and pleasures can make us insane, if not put in some kind of limitation.
Even in times of crisis, we should follow the practices of temperance and should moderate our emotions to save us from any extreme behaviors.
Interestingly, the concept of justice starts with our soul and reaches the corridors of power. Fair treatment can help an individual in attaining discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and, if it’s allowed to prevail in society, irrespective of the authority or position of individuals, it can help us in achieving social equality and justice.
The indiscriminate availability of justice can help us in establishing a society that distributes to each person according to what he deserves.
We learned from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations thathe kept reminding himself to be prepared for facing fears, dishonesty, and treachery because that’s the whole idea of stoicism; to prepare our souls to be ready for all kinds of circumstances.
The force of fortitude can make an individual fearless about the terrors and harsh experiences of life. And contrary to the popular belief, a stoic should always be aware of the adversity and should have the knowledge of fearful and terrible circumstances. Because without being courageous, one can’t be stoic.
Is it a self-centered Philosophy?
You must have noticed that these principles are not centered on individual behaviors because Stoicism, which remained popular for almost five centuries in Ancient Greece and Rome, is not a self-centered philosophy rather it calls for the collective good or improvement of the society.
Moreover, Stoicism doesn’t encourage passivity as it has been popularized by modern-day gurus. Stoicism demands for a wise, tolerant, just and courageous society, which can’t come into being by adopting the behavior of passivity.
The revival of Stoicism:
The ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which got buried once Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD, has already seen several periods of revivals but the way it has been resuscitated in recent years and has been modified by the modern-day topics, this new wave of stoicism will certainly last longer than ever.
Interestingly, Stoicism has a lot in common with the Eastern philosophy of Buddhism as the concept of ataraxia overlaps with the concept of Nirvana — which is quite popular nowadays.
Be it Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy or Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Stoicism has already found a strong footing in the works of modern-day psychologists and philosophers.
Moreover, with this new wave of self-help books and self-help theories, a modified version of Stoicism has now found a new set of followers, which will only increase in the coming years. Thus, even if you’ve not yet read or learned about Stoicism, this is the perfect time to do so.
- What do the Stoic Virtues Mean?
- The Stoic Reading List: 3 Must-Read Books To Get You Started
- Stoicism (StanfordEncyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Seneca (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The writer is a civil servant.