And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah…or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
-David Foster Wallace
For 28 days in October, I lived in the wilderness of the Utah desert with seven other people, suffering freezing nights and scorching days, all while eating extremely meager rations (including almost a week of no food, whatsoever). Besides a book on outdoor living skills, I was accompanied by just one book: Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca. As the days progressed, I watched several group members drop out due to the difficulty and other reasons. I often questioned why I was doing what appeared to be an insane undertaking.
I’ve always been a fan of Stoicism, and because my only source of reading for a month was Letters from a Stoic, I spent a lot of time thinking about the philosophy within the modern age. The following short article is meant to help you understand the basic tenets of this ancient, but extremely relevant, philosophy. In future articles, I’ll delve deeper into this philosophy and it’s ramifications.Marcus Aurelius writing Meditations
Stoicisim was founded around 300 B.C. by Zeno, who was born in Cyprus. Zeno lectured from a well known stoa (a porch-like structure) in Athens; hence, the name Stoicism. For centuries, stoicism was one of the most influential philosophies in the Greco-Roman world, and its numerous followers and teachers modified and developed it over hundreds of years. The basic framework, however, always remained the same.
The major goal of Stoicism is to lead man to arrive at happiness by achieving the true good thing in life: arete in Greek or virtus in Latin (definitely more complicated than the English ‘virtue’). This summum bonum (supreme ideal) is a combintion of four qualities.
- Wisdom, or moral insight
- Justice, in the form of upright dealing with others.
The idea of arete is that, by following the ideal and achieving it, a man becomes truly self-sufficient; that is, immune to suffering and bad fortunee. Arete is a personal characteristic, not one bestowed by class or position: thus, even a slave who has achieved arete is free, because no man, not even a king, can affect him.
While there is no specific God, stoics often refer to a divine will in various terms, but the basic understanding is that all men live in a singular community under the same conditions and restraints. Due to this singular community, man has a duty to live in conformity with the community. This duty is twofold:
- We should accept and resign ourselves to whatever fate is bestowed upon us, without complaining. (See this 4 hour workweek article on how to quit complaining)
- We should bring out life in accordance with nature’s laws.
Step 1 – Resigning Oneself To Fate
Why should we accept fate completely? Although this seems to mean that we shouldn’t try to improve the future, this isn’t correct: stoics put a high value on public service, for instance, or striving to better oneself. In the case of stoicism, resigning oneself to fate means that we should not set too high a value on cursory, transient thing. By avoiding a fixation on the unimportant, man can find true inner peace and unshakeable contentment that doesn’t rely on possesions or fortune. By accepting that things come and go, this contentment and peace will withstand the obstacles of ambition, luxury, and—most importantly—greed. It should be noted that the idea that all things ‘come and go’ is a central tenet of Zen Buddhism as well.
Step 2 – Life in Accordance With Nature’s Laws
The concept of ‘Nature’s Laws’ is a bit personal, which is why ‘questioning convention’ is one of the fundamentals of stoicism. Some of the most important ideas, however, are clear:
- Training oneself to live with only the bare necessities. A man should know how to live with just basic food, water, clothing, and shelter. In one of his letters, Seneca writes: “Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and you will ask yourself: ‘Is this what one used to dread?’”(67)It was this ideal (and, specifically, this quote) that originally drove me to spend 28 days in the wilderness with almost no food.
- We should develop our gift of reason. How so? We must perfect our sense of reason to conquer our devastating inner emotions: grief, pain, fear (of death, especially), and superstition. Reason allows us to escape and discipline our passions, understand that ‘nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so,’ and to generally accept our mind as a greater source of truth than the body or emotions. Stoics are famous for their idea that ‘the shortest route to wealth is the contempt of wealth.’
This has been a very basic summary to Stoicism, and I hope you can see why it is a lasting and powerful philosophy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic! Leave a comment below, and one lucky commenter will get a free copy of Meditations or Letters from a Stoic. All you have to do is Tweet this link, Like this page, and comment below. I’d love to hear what sort of articles you want to read from this blog, and what I can help you achieve.