The following is a post about how the stoic philosophy has shaped and changed my life. I’ve written this for Stoic Week which is November 25th – December 2nd. More information about Stoic Week can be found here.
My first encounter with Stoicism came when I was in my last year of high school. I had always been an inquisitive student who was not afraid to question the ideas or arguments put forward in class. At the time, it seemed to me that philosophy was a course designed for me. I remember excitedly looking forward to class and wondering what new idea or argument we could come up against each day.
I think what really appealed to me was the idea that there were no apparent right answers to any of the questions we asked, which left it up to each of us to form our own ideas. Having to then defend these ideas against the criticisms of fellow classmates added a whole new dimension and challenge. For once, it was ok to ask someone why they felt X was the case or tell them that you disagree because Y.
The importance of the questions we examined made the task of forming answers overwhelming at times. One day you walk into class and learn that you may have no free will and that everything you have done has been determined since before your birth! To an inquisitive mind that can lead to several sleepless nights, but I had a great teacher and was in good hands.
Philosophy had always been a challenge to me, an intellectual puzzle. Although questions of freewill and determinism kept me awake at night, life for the most part went on. It wasn’t until I underwent personal struggle that I realized the transformative aspects of philosophy. I realized that philosophy was not just an intellectual pursuit, but can more importantly be a way of life. My philosophy teacher who had realized that I needed guidance during a rough time put me on to stoicism. He recommended a reading of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
I will never forget my first reading of The Meditations. Aurelius was a man who had every reason to be arrogant and brass and yet through reading his private thoughts you find a man who is humble and reflective. A Roman emperor who commanded the respect of thousands of people in one of the biggest empires of human history, a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, who spent much of his time in wars he could not avoid, whose family was struck with hardship after hardship. His meditations a reminder to himself “To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved as the raging of the sea falls still around it,” his words to himself both poignant and beautifully poetic.
The appeal of stoicism for me is based on its acknowledgement that we must for the most part take life as it comes. We must realize that life is short and the larger events of our lives are for the most part out of our control. Although we can eat right and exercise cancer may strike our body. Although we can live extremely cautiously accidents still happen. Although you can drink green tea every day at some point you will die. Even the best-laid plans can fail.
Instead of trying to control every little aspect of our lives stoicism preaches that we must come to understand the things that we have control over and the things that we do not. Accordingly, we can only truly control how we perceive the events of our lives and the degree to which something hurts us is purely based on how much we decide to let it.
Taking the examples above, a stoic may say that cancer and other illness is natural; accidents are part of life, and death is both necessary and inevitable. The idea that any of these conditions are caused by bad luck is ludicrous. Instead of dwelling on these natural conditions why not put the thing that is under your control, your mind, towards perceiving these events just as they are, natural parts of living a mortal life, and move on.
Unfortunately, I think many people confuse the stoic notion of control with a kind of fatalistic pacifism. The idea that I can’t control what anyone else is doing so I should just stay within my bubble and remain inactive in the world, akin to a kind of ethical egotist position. However, I would disagree with this assessment of stoic control. I would argue that stoicism demands that each of us must actively try to shape and change the world, but we must recognize what we are capable of and not let our efforts affect our dispositions.
For instance, we should try to show the drug addict that their way of life is harmful for both themselves and those around them, but ultimately we must acknowledge that lasting change comes from within and if they are not willing to give up their addictions we cannot let their regrettable decision harm our well being. I can suggest rehabilitation and advise against further use of narcotics but if my suggestions fall upon deaf ears then I must realize that such things are not within the scope of my control.
My journey into stoicism has helped me through hardships both personal and professional. I believe that it has afforded me with a sense of tranquility and calm which was something that I was missing in my life. The nature of this world is such that each of us will experience highs and lows. Stoicism had allowed me to appreciate the ups and face the downs with acceptance for what they are, a natural part of my life.
Ultimately, I think stoicism has given me what I needed which is a way to interpret and understand the world without an appeal to supernatural phenomenon. It is a philosophy that first and foremost acknowledges the way the world is and this realism is essential to any true value system. In the end, stoics like Aurelius remind us “To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one,” to stop theorizing what the good life is and go out and attain it.