The Stoic Way

By Dr. Peter H. Samson

The Stoic philosophy appeared in a time when people were looking not to the years ahead but to the past for their ideals, expecting little of the future but more weariness and futility. Slavery was the evil social foundation undergirding the whole magnificent Greek civilization. The common people suffered terrible poverty, the economic system was faced with hopeless problems, political life was apparently beyond rescue. It was a tired age, lived amid some of the most splendid architecture the world had seen, but the inherited magnificence had no relationship to the human conditions which prevailed. These were among the seedbeds of Christianity with its otherworldly hope of civilization, and the matrix of antiquity's noblest secular philosophy, Stoicism.

Gilbert Murray, whose scholarly writings illumine these distant centuries for us, calls Stoicism

. . . the greatest system of organized thought which the mind of man had built up for itself in the Graeco-Roman world before the coming of Christianity . . . Stoicism may be called either a philosophy or a religion.... I believe that it represents a way of looking at the world and the practical problems of life which possesses still a permanent interest for the human race, and a permanent power of inspiration.

How could a view of life born of an age of discouragement and failing nerve hold any continuing appeal for people in later ages? Why did it not die out when the special conditions giving rise to it had passed away?

One of the peculiarities of human history is that when conditions change, a philosophy or religious faith associated with them does not always fade. Christianity provides a dramatic illustration of this, and the Stoic philosophy another. Each long outlived the circumstances which saw its origin and nurtured it to vigor. Yet in the centuries since then, each has continued to appeal and even to inspire. The Stoic view of life is more than a merely emotional reaction to a discouraging age. It was partly that, but it was also a reality-grounded philosophy of life, commanding more enduring respect from thoughtful people than it would if it had been just another philosophical defense against a failing civilization.

The Stoic philosophy is founded on metaphysics, on a theory of the ultimate nature of things, of what the universe is in its essence. It introduced to the Western world the ancient Oriental conception, which still dominates religious thought, that the world has a soul, a spirit, a unity. The Stoics saw the universe as a living organism with every part fitting into the total scheme.

The world was not a collection of separate atoms, as was then widely believed, but an integrated organism with a unity, even with a life of its own. In consequence, nothing can happen entirely by chance, for everything is related to the whole. Everything that occurs, large or small, in the universe or in our personal lives, is the result of the chain of cause and effect, the linkage which began no one knows where or when, and goes on into endless time.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, remarked about 300 B.C.:

The unreflective person thinks of himself as an independent unit in this world, complete in himself. His own private good is the criterion for every choice he has to make. But true wisdom begins when the individual reckons himself a fragment, a part of a perfect whole, the universe. He is under obligation to make the reason at the heart of things his own standard of behavior.

This is the foundation for one of the soundest philosophies ever evolved from human experience with the vagaries and disappointments of life: man is part of the universal order, an inseparable part of nature, and everything that takes place in his life is to be understood in that larger perspective.

What we today popularly think of as a stoical attitude contains part of the truth of the classical Stoic philosophy, but only a part. We think of stoicism as fortitude, the stiff-upper-lip, endurance in the face of adverse circumstances. The stoic takes whatever comes, going on with the business of living with no whimpering or rebellion. This fundamental philosophy of life helps people not to be crushed by self-pity. It helped Robert E. Lee live through his ordeal of defeat with dignity and nobility. Marcus Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor, the most famous of all the Stoics, expressed the philosophy thus:

Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late. . . . Everything is fruit to me which seasons bring, O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return.

The Stoic philosophy, an import from ancient Greece, blended with the high old Roman virtues of piety, honesty and duty. In the age of Roman decadence, it held together the civic and social order, and taught thinking people the nature of true freedom, that it depends not ultimately on laws and swords but upon its life within the person. 'Nothing is worth living for except goodness" was a basic Stoic maxim. All the ordinary conventions by which people set store -- what are these in the final reckoning? Rank, riches, social distinction, pleasures, the barriers of race or nation -- all these are mere externals. Nothing but goodness is good.

The extraordinary fortitude that such an attitude could lead to is illustrated by the Stoic Stilpo. After his city was sacked by the Macedonians, he was asked what he had lost in the catastrophe, noting that his house had been burned, his money gone, his wife and children scattered he knew not where, yet he was serene and unperturbed in spirit. "My justice, my courage, my temperance, my prudence are still with me." Socrates, who had died stoically long before Stoicism arose as a philosophy, came to be revered by Stoics later for his attitude during his trial, his refusal to take the opportunity to escape, and his calmness in the face of death. They admired his indifference to personal misfortune, to popular conventionalities, to bodily discomforts and indignities. Epictetus, the liberated slave, stated the attitude which this philosophy encouraged toward the blows of daily life.

I must die, but must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned, but must I whine as well? I must suffer exile, but can any prevent me from going with a good grace and at peace? This is in my power. "But I will chain you." What say you fellow? Chain me? My leg you can chain, yes, but my will, no, not even Zeus can conquer that. "I will imprison you." My bit of a body, you mean.

Such is the practical attitude the Stoics had when they spoke of "sharing the eternal life of Nature." In accordance with their belief in the underlying world soul of which all that exists is an inherent part, they held that reason is at the heart of things, animating and controlling all of life, including man and his affairs -- not intellectuality but reason. Nothing happens contrary to the truth at the heart of all things and, if you are wise, you will not hurl yourself against it in defiance, but accept with grace whatever life holds, the unpleasant and even painful experiences as they come. These were not devised personally for you, but are part of the natural order of things in which everything is interrelated and harmonized with the universal reason -- which the Christian called God.

There is an interesting similarity between Stoicism and Christianity, which arose a little later. Epictetus says, "Never in any case say that I have lost such and such a thing, but rather that I have returned it. Is thy child dead? It is returned to the universe; it is returned to nature from which it was given you for a time." Will Durant speculates, "In such a passage we feet the nearness of Christianity and the dauntless martyrs. Indeed, were not the Christian ethic of self-denial and the Christian political ideal of brotherhood but fragments of the Stoic doctrine, floating in the stream of thought?" The most basic common element in Stoicism and Christianity was this faith in the unity, the spirit animating the universe.

Stoicism has contributed to humanity some of the sanest spirits the world has known; yet even these sometimes illustrate the peculiar weaknesses of its philosophy as a way of life for mankind generally. For example, Zeno did not believe in slavery. But one day be was beating his slave for some transgression when the slave protested that since by Zeno's own philosophy everything that happens is part of the natural order, the slave was destined to commit his fault. Zeno replied that, by the same philosophy, he was destined to beat the slave for it.

Such determinism came to pose one of Stoicism's worst problems: how to reconcile it with human freedom. If the chain of cause and effect determines all things, why should one even bother to decide his attitude toward the events of his life, for is not his attitude also predetermined? The same difficulty is encountered by every philosophy and religion which maintains belief in a God ruling the universe and human life: God's power is convenient for explaining what happens in life and helping one reconcile oneself to it. But does such ruling power not also rob one of the freedom to do, to think, and to be an individual?

Here, too, was Seneca, in the first century, coiner of scores of epigrams concerning life's conduct, death and acceptance: "No one can live happily who looks only to himself and turns all things to his own advantage. You must live for others if you would live for yourself." "If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world you will yet be miserable." It is disappointing to record that Seneca, advocate of altruism, contentment and austerity, himself grew rich to the tune of millions by lending money during the Roman rule in Britain. The exorbitant rates he charged were said to be one of the reasons for Queen Boadicea's revolt against Rome. Stoics often failed to translate their fine wisdom into resolute practice; their intellectual brilliance seemed not always to have the conviction necessary to produce selfless lives.

But then, there was Epictetus, the crippled first-century slave, who lived and died a man inwardly free, while the Emperor Nero, his master's master, lived and died an abject slave to his lusts; his passions formed his fetters. Epictetus' writings are full of Oriental resignation, along with an almost Christian spirit of renunciation. "Seek not to have things happen as you choose them; rather choose that they should happen as they do and you will live prosperously."

One of America's distinguished clergymen, Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote toward the end of his life that the best advice he had ever received was given him in his youth by his father. Leaving the house one morning, he said to his wife, "Tell Harry he can cut the grass today, if he feels like it." He walked down the street a few steps and then called back, "And tell Harry he'd better feel like it." A long lifetime later, the echo of his father's counsel was still with Dr. Fosdick: "If you don't get the tasks you like, make up your mind to try liking the tasks you get."

Of course there are limits to such acceptance. Epictetus' master one day was twisting his slave's leg to help the time pass. Epictetus said calmly, "If you go on doing that, you will break my leg." The twisting went on and the leg broke. Epictetus observed mildly, "Didn't I tell you that you would break my leg?" Patient, long-suffering, yes, but must people with character and backbone accept everything that happens to them? Or only the inevitable things that cannot possibly be changed by human intelligence and effort?

Marcus Aurelius exemplified in fullness the Stoic ideal. His Meditations show how it could become a religion to a person, fortifying him to face the hopelessness of certain human situations -- and he surely did have need of fortitude to accept what fell to his share as emperor. His reign was beset by calamities, earthquakes, pestilences, long and difficult wars and revolutionary insurrections. He threw back the barbarians invading from the north, and gave Roman civilization perhaps another two hundred years of life. Yet Marcus Aurelius is a sad figure in human history. This intelligent, conscientious man, the wisest and the best of the Antonines, produced a son, Commodus, who turned out to be one of the most corrupt of the Roman emperors -- a record not easy to achieve in view of the competition.

The high tone of Stoic wisdom, and the often modest personal and social achievement it produced in lesser men than Marcus, provide sobering food for thought. There seemed to be something in the Stoic way of life and thought that diminished the drive for effective living. It may be that these good and wise people so resigned themselves to the evils of life that they became apathetic and indifferent toward the root causes of these evils, unable to act to remove them. Possibly their stress on universal reason made them cold to the emotional flow and pulse of life, so that human sympathy finds relatively little place in their way of living.

Yet Stoicism has added a dimension to life and thought for which people ever after have been grateful. "Life is short at best. Live as on a mountaintop. It matters not whether your place be here or there. Wherever you are, be a citizen of the world." This Aurelian ideal is not to be quickly forgotten, and it has not been. To the eternal credit of the Stoics is their magnificent conception of human oneness on the earth, their cosmopolitan sense of human relatedness, predating Christianity by a considerable time. "If God and mankind are akin," wrote Epictetus, "there is but one course open to us: never reply to one who asks your country, 'I am an Athenian, I am a Corinthian.' Why should we not call ourselves citizens of the universe, sons of God?" Marcus Aurelius echoed, "Insofar as I am Antoninus, my city, my country, is Rome, but insofar as I am a man, it is the world."

The Stoics have contributed to the spiritual life of humanity a clear, brave philosophy of how one may learn to face and endure hardship with dignity and courage. Since human life brings suffering and calamity as a part of its normal content, mankind will always need this spirit which insists on seeing life as an inseparable part of a larger reality. This wisdom bears the marks of a maturity which much of our present-day philosophy and religion has yet to attain.

(From Sunrise magazine, February 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

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