What can Stoics teach us?

If you hear the word “Stoicism” for the first time, I recommend that you first read a very short history of Stoicism in the next paragraph. Otherwise, you can skip it and continue reading.

A very short history

Stoicism is a philosophical school born in Ancient Greece around 300 BC. It was found by Zeno of Citium, a sea merchant from Cyprus, who suffered a shipwreck, after which he arrived to Athens, where he acquainted himself with philosophy. The Stoic philosophy gradually came to be influential in Ancient Rome. There, ideas of Stoicism were developed by such philosophers as Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Ruf and even the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Most written historical works on Stoicism that we have today are the works of Ancient Rome philosophers. Stoicism remained influential until around 3-4 century AD, when Christianity became a state religion in Rome.

Life in accordance with nature

The teaching of Stoics is divided into three parts: physics, logic and ethics. From the point of view of modern science, their physics -- which explained not only phenomena that modern physics deals with, but also biological and psychological phenomena -- was naive and often wrong. For example, ancient Stoics believed that a soul is a gas-like matter that is made of air and fire, that is situated in our chest and reacts to external stimuli. It turns out that they were wrong about both gas and chest, but the very idea that an organ which is responsible for cognition and our mental condition is a physical object -- is pretty modern, because that is what our brain is. If you read Stoic texts and ignore clearly wrong stuff, you can see that their understanding of nature was very modern.

Fortunately, Stoics did get right the idea on which their whole philosophy is built. The idea is that humans are unique species. We have an ability that no other animal has -- a language faculty -- that not only allows us to exchange information with each other, but also understand the world around us, including ourselves, by using logical judgements and the wealth of concepts that our language faculty makes possible. Today, approximately 2000 years later, this point of view is backed up by evidence from linguistics and evolutionary biology. To see how close ancient Greeks and Romans were to the state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, it is enough to read accessible books like Noam Chomsky's New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2000) or Why only us? (2016), or the recently published book by Kevin Laland Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony (2017).

So what kind of conclusions did Stoics make from this observation?

They believed that a life worth living is a life that is lived in accordance with nature. These words may sound strange and make one imagine people who hug trees, but that is not what philosophers meant. Although not completely, our development from birth till death is determined by the Nature, by genetic information. In this sense we are not very different from other animals or plants. For example, unless a plant is picked, it will grow to the genetically determined height, then maybe yield fruits -- and die when it is time to die. Of course, plants do not have freedom to choose how to grow (and whether to grow) and die. All plants grow in accordance with nature.

The situation is different for humans. On one hand, our height, age-related change or need to eat food are too determined by genes. But it would be wrong to say that just by growing and eating we live in accordance with nature. As I said above, we were given more -- language and mind -- and it would be reasonable to put them to good use. But what use is good? The answer is (deceptively) simple: to act in accordance with nature. Our actions, unlike our bodies, heavily depend on context and random events, and not genes.

You may think that it is not particulary difficult. Going to a cafe in order to eat -- is pretty much in accordance with nature, because we need to eat. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Many people overeat. While our stomach is fine with just one portion, a person might eat three, which is completely unnatural and might lead to obesity and hamper the natural development. But it is also good to understand that choosing not to act is no less important than to act. A person, who chooses to not smoke or do drugs, is acting in accordance with nature, allowing his body to develop naturally. To understand what really harms us and what doesn't -- we need knowledge that is accessible through reason. Therefore, to truly live in accordance with nature, humans need to use their mind in various life situations.

What is under our control and what is not

In some sense, plants are “lucky”, because they do not have to figure out how to grow, how to react to the Sun or wind, or plants nearby. A human, on the other hand, always faces a choice of action, that sometimes may require intensive thinking. Our life would be easy if all we had to care about was overeating. There is an infinite number of life events that require us to use our mind to its fullest, and thus we need some abstract principle to guide us in each of them.

Ancient Rome philosopher Epictetus, I believe, managed to formulate the principle in the most accessible and exhaustive way:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.” (Enchiridion, I, §1)

He didn't formulate this principle out of blue and it is easy to see why. As I already said, we are capable of assisting the natural development of our body, but this does not mean that it is fully under our control -- no kind of desire would protect us (and those close to us) from unlucky events, like a car crash or incurable illness. On the contrary, excessive confidence in having the whole world of random events under our control can lead to the deepest disappointment, will to revenge or will to blame other people and gods, which does not make sense. Readiness to accept an accident as it is requires courage and this is one of traits that any human must work to develop, as Stoics think. Note that by courage they do not mean blind risk for the sake or risk (as one meaning of this word). Courage naturally follows from understanding how the world works.

I think that this is something to learn, because modern society often relies on some kind of inspirational quotes that rid people from the need of developing courage: “Everything is gonna be OK”, “If you try a lot you will achieve it” etc. There is nothing wrong with hoping that we will avoid an unlucky event, but an absence of readiness to accept the event as it is, to accept the fact that not everything might be OK, can lead to catastrophic consequences.

Some may think that such a point of view is too pessimistic, but it is not. On the contrary, it reveals one of the most beautiful sides of the Stoic thought. We almost never live alone -- there are people we love, friends and parents. All of them, as everything else, are not strictly speaking ours and also depend on accident and also on time, that nature (or genes) gave us. That they are close now, alive and healthy -- is also an accident, which we can truly value only if we realise its fragility in the face of everything that can happen in the world. In other words, courage makes us more human and gives a deeper meaning to the word love. Fortunately, having courage or not is entirely under our control, as Epictetus notices. You can show courage in many cases -- and it is important to remember Epictetus' words in each of them.

This is how Stoics show how thinking (as a product of mind) and correct conclusions can help us avoid psychological discomfort and disappointment under many blows of life, and even turn it into something valuable, some kind of fuel for a strong character. By developing not only our body, but also our character, we truly fulfill our duty to nature that gave us mind. A person, who lived his whole life developing his character will have nothing to regret in the end. But a person, who spent his whole life trying to become richer probably won't regret not living a bit longer and not becoming a bit richer. Of course, wealth and Stoicism are perfectly compatible. Seneca, for example, apart from being a philosopher, was a politician and was very wealthy, but that did not prevent him from realising the priority of things, which is clear from his writing. What good are money, when you can't use them to bring back your beloved ones, whom you didn't value enough when they were alive?

I think that today, in 2019, the medicine and technology developed so much that they distort our understanding of our limits of control. Progress itself is an amazing thing and I'm glad that we now live much longer. However, the very same progress makes people think that we can someday "cancel" aging altogether. Even if science is capable of that, so be it, but today such technology is impossible. The hype around the technological progress makes people think less about important things I listed above and fantasize more about the boundaries of their control. It is important to remember that technological progress also brought with it weapons of mass destruction and technogenic disasters, against which our bodies do not stand a chance.

Another good example are dating applications, which at first glance promise a simple and convenient way to find a partner. In reality, though, a person becomes a victim of statistics, which shows very strong inequality in the success of finding a partner. Moreover, the statistics itself emerged only because of the illusion of infinite choice. When a person finds himself in the "unsuccessful" part of the statistical distribution, he or she may start blaming own appearance or, even worse, the opposite sex, and completely forget that this is something which is not under our control.

One simple fact

Some of you might think: "I can't just suddenly become courageous". I had the same thought, until I found out that Seneca discusses this point in many letters to Lucilius, a politician and poet, about whom we do not know much. There is only one, banal, way to develop some character trait -- practice. Seneca (and Epictetus) are suprised at people who easily agree that to become a musician one needs to practice an instrument, to become an artist -- practice drawing, but who do not understand that to become a good person one also needs to practice.

One can practice in many ways. Sometimes life itself puts us in situations that require us to act correctly (which includes our thoughts about something). For some people it is easier, for others -- harder. This is why it is good to always have a model of behaviour (a role model). It can be a person, whom you admire, a person, who undoubtedly has the best character traits that are available to humans. The words of these people are no less important. In any life event, you can always ask yourself: "What would this person do?"

For Seneca, Cato the Younger was the role model. He was a political activist and the leader of opposition during Julius Caesar's reign. Obviously, being in opposition to a dictator is a dangerous thing, but it didn't prevent Cato from leading the army and fighting several battles. When Cato and his allies lost the battle near Utica, he realised that further battles are hopeless and said:

"Fortune, you have accomplished nothing by resisting all my endeavours. I have fought, till now, for my country's freedom, and not for my own, I did not strive so doggedly to be free, but only to live among the free. Now, since the affairs of mankind are beyond hope, let Cato be withdrawn to safety." (Letters to Lucilius, letter XXIV).

After these words Cato pierced himself with his sword. People around tried to save him, but his opened the wound even more with his own hands and finally died.

For a modern person, such a role model might seem too "brutal". But, as Seneca says, it is enough if a chosen role model is good enough in different life events. This is what he actually writes in one of his letters:

"Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler." (Letters to Lucilius, letter XI)