The Stoics: Ancient Answers to Jordan Peterson

The ancient philosophical school of the Stoics is having a revival. Whether war or pandemic, financial crisis or political turmoil, ordinary people turned to the Stoics for wisdom to guide them through difficult times.

Self-help books with life lessons from the Stoics are sold out. The annual Stoicon conference in London started in 2013 and attracts thousands of attendees each year (most philosophy conferences are lucky to attract hundreds). It’s not just residents of an obscure subculture who patronize these events. A recent Australian Stoic Conference included keynotes from a diverse range of speakers including former NSW Premier Bob Carr, tennis great Pat Cash and Commodore Glen Ryan.

So, what is Stoicism and why is it attractive in our chaotic times?

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism was a philosophical movement in ancient Greece and Rome whose members included the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the statesman Lucius Seneca. Cicero was an admirer of the Stoics and introduced Stoic ideas into most of his writings.

However, the movement’s most critical supporters were philosophers such as Epictetus, the influential first-century thinker and former slave, and Chitium of Sitim, who opened the first school of Stoic philosophy in Athens. promise. The term “Stoics” comes from Stoa Poecile Or “Painted Stoa” – a building in Athens where Zeno of the Citium met his followers and taught.

Stoicism is largely about the way we see the world and the universe.For the Stoics, the universe is a universe, a complex and ordered system governed by the laws of nature. The Stoics used the word nature with a capital “N” to refer to the principles that govern both the natural world and the human world: the principles of creation and destruction, growth and decay, convergence and divergence. The principles of nature can be understood through human reason and can also be discovered through observation of the world around us.

While the Stoics believed that we had limited control over the world around us, we Do Control our inner life and attitude. More importantly, happiness does not lie in the external circumstances of a person’s life, but in the attitudes we take towards the environment. Hence, Epictetus wrote: “It is not what happens to you that matters, but how you react to it”. In fact, he even argues that “good” refers to something within us rather than some feature of the world. If we embrace the natural course of things, we can be happy even in what most people think is very bad. In the words of Epictetus, we can be “sick but happy, dangerous but happy, dead but happy, exiled but happy, shame and joy”.

It is a misunderstanding to think that the Stoics were only concerned with willpower and downplayed the emotional life of human beings. Granted, the Stoics are no strangers to adversity. Epictetus was a freed slave, and Marcus Aurelius fought a 16-year war with invading Germanic tribes and the Persian Empire; his army was destroyed by the Antonine Plague. But because of this, the Stoics were very aware of the moral relevance of vulnerability and connection. As Georgetown philosopher Nancy Sherman put it:

“…Resilience is not just about doing your best, personal effort and stamina are the hallmarks of survival. Quite the contrary, “home in the world”—another key Stoic concept—is a And the issues of sustaining and supporting your good people together. A richer Stoic story of cultivating virtue by expanding circles outward needs to be part of a key guide on how to thrive as a Stoic.”

In other words, the Stoics had a cosmopolitan view, not a rugged individualism. They see their existence and prosperity as inseparable from the communities they form. Social support and cooperation are necessary to live a good life.

The Stoics were acutely aware of human mortality.Therefore, Epictetus in his discourse“When you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, [remind yourself] They are mortals”. This may sound a little depressing. But the Stoics did not downplay the value of relationships. One of the most beautiful odes to friendship is Cicero’s De Amicitia —A transcribed dialogue in which the Roman statesman Gaius Laelius Sapiens sings praises to his late friend, General Scipio Africanus. Laelius celebrates the virtues of the deceased hero and uses it as a driving force for an in-depth discussion of the nature of friendship.

The Stoics also recognized the positive aspects of human aging.Cicero, deeply influenced by Stoic ideas about fragility and aging, went on to write a poignant and moving work old age. In our youth-obsessed society, this is a must-read for everyone. Cicero points out that there is a peculiar calm at the twilight of life: “The soul is with itself, lives with itself, free from desires, ambitions, strife, hatred, desires of every kind!”.

He also observed that with age, people appreciate higher levels of intellectual pleasures that are sublime in a way that youth pleasures cannot match. Cicero recounts the great scholarship and speech of his older friends, exclaiming: “What, then, are the pleasures of banquets, games, and sensory indulgences compared to these pleasures?”

The Stoic Wisdom of Our Time

We live in turbulent times and we need a philosophy that advises us on how to remain resilient and agile in the face of radical disruption. Stoicism was born for this task. American author Ryan Holiday has described Stoicism as the ultimate 21st century “secret to life” and is known as a popularizer of Stoic thought.

But reducing Stoicism to “life hacks” misses the point. Stoicism is a form of self-help, but it’s deeper and ultimately more demanding than the “Hacks of Life” offered by contemporary self-help gurus. Rather than “cracking” our way out of serious life changes, Stoicism proposes a new way of being in the world that is fundamentally different from the choice-obsessed techno-utopianism that is the culture of the 21st century. And thought provides a lot of information.

There are two basic ideas.

First, there are many things in reality that we cannot change or escape. There are many things in life that are beyond our control. If we can’t change the world around us, we might as well try to change the attitudes we can control. Second, virtue is the only good and evil is the only evil. We need to learn how to value virtue and stop valuing things like money, fame, and pleasure.

Death is a good case study. Sooner or later we will all die. Many people naively believe in the power of modern medicine or technology to prolong life and treat pain and suffering indefinitely. The unfortunate reality is that even modern medicine provides only partial relief from pain, and death remains a fundamental part of our human condition. Rather than eschewing death or treating it as a taboo subject (as modern cultures are accustomed to do), the Stoics encouraged people to develop a keen awareness of their own mortality. The perception of human death influenced the Stoic view of various phenomena of human life: aging, relationships, the value of material possessions, the value of achievement and power, and so on.

The Stoics advise not to try to escape death, but to live all aspects of life according to the transience of human life. A Stoic might say, “cherish life until it lasts” because the things of this world are fading away.

So the value of Stoicism is not in “life hacking” but in its belief that life cannot be hacked and that true happiness can be achieved only by embracing the reality of the human condition and valuing virtue over money, fame and pleasure. Happiness is achieved by becoming virtuous, because a virtuous life is a full life.

Stoicism has another meaning, it speaks of the pain of our time. That’s why the work of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson resonates so much with people today, especially young people.

While today people are taught to think about the impersonal structures that shape society in world terms—structural racism, sexism, sexual oppression, etc.—Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches you can control your world The little corner, your inner self. You can control it all, and you can choose how you respond to the world.

Stoicism provides a rich philosophical exposition of Victor Frankl’s view that “everything can be obtained from a man, but only one thing: the ultimate freedom of man – in any given situation Choose your own attitude; choose your own way”. For those who feel disenfranchised in our age of depersonalisation, this message is deeply liberating.

in conclusion

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Stoic.Stoics can be pessimistic and pessimistic at times and when I first read Marcus Aurelius I wasn’t really in the mood meditation.

Certain features of Stoicism are clearly objectionable. For example, some Stoics favor certain types of suicide (especially rational suicide). Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius maintain that death by hand is always an option and is often more honorable than a long, painful life.Stoic thought indifferent (Disengagement from emotion) As the highest virtue, I also feel that this is an inhuman concept. Contrary to the Stoics, emotions are part of who we are as human beings. They are part of the good life, not an obstacle to it. So it’s hard for me to give Stoicism a whole-hearted support.

But it’s not hard to see why it’s touted as an antidote to the troubles of our time. Stoicism provides insight into the human condition that our culture lacks. For those obsessed with youth, Stoicism talks about the happiness of aging; for those obsessed with controlling what happens to us, Stoicism talks about the peace and harmony of accepting reality and the human condition. peaceful.

More importantly, Stoicism is a philosophical approach through which people restore a sense of personal responsibility, be it psychological, evolutionary, or identity-based, in an age defined by determinism.

Stoics may look serious and stern. But the bitter medicine of Stoicism is a life buoy for those adrift in a world that has lost its metaphysical moorings. This is good news.

Xavier Symons is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, Australian Catholic University and St Vincent’s Health Australia.More from Xavier Simmons

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