I learned of stoicism after being introduced to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations which I read and posted quotes about back in 2017. I am still fascinated by this wonderful philosophy and am amazed that the ancients seem so much more enlightened 2000 years ago than we are today. The masses today are taught how to think and what to believe from mass media and religion; it is very rare for a regular person to think outside of the ideas imposed upon them by their community, their church and their political leaders.
What is so damning about our own times is that regular people have never had more opportunity/ability to receive education yet critical thinking remains elusive. There are colleges and universities everywhere and a reasonable person would think this would lead to an enlightened citizenry. There is also the internet with the entirety of human knowledge at everyone’s fingertips. But sadly, neither an abundance of universities nor access to information has produced a population that is able to think critically and question those beliefs passed down from generation to generation. They are still told what to think and accept it enthusiastically without question. Just take a look at what the Republican party has become over the past two decades with the culmination being the election to the Presidency of a known liar and con man. Guns, Jesus and Me First!
And so for me, reading really good philosophy, ancient or not, is a breath of fresh air. I wonder why these wonderful ideas have not replaced ancient superstition and fantasy sprinkled with a few greatly exaggerated historical events?
Here are my favorite quotes:
Socrates famously chastised his fellow Athenians for paying great attention to their bodies and their possessions but very little attention to their souls – to what they think or believe, to their values and characters. Yet Socrates insisted that the key to a good, happy life lies in attending to the latter, not the former.
Not much has changed in 2000 years has it. We live in a society built upon the accumulation of wealth as its engine. Money is king. However, to appease the moral conscious of the masses the politicians give an enthusiastic nod to religion. These two things, money and religion are inherently contradictory with capitalism being to gain as much money as possible with no regard to society at large and religion telling us money is the “root of all evil.”
It also tells us that paying excessive attention to our money and possessions while neglecting the state of our character is a grave mistake.
I learned a long time ago that money and possessions do not make a person happy. I learned this through reading books on meditation, philosophy and practicing myself. The revelation came from Buddhism warning against a “grasping mind.” The more you have the more your mind will grasp at what you don’t have. If you can put your mind at rest, you become content with what you have.
Epictetus proposes thinking of your life as if you were an actor in a play. You haven’t chosen your role, you don’t get to decide what happens, and you have no control over how long it will last. Rather than fight against all these things which are out of your control, your task is to play the role you find yourself in as best you can.
Great advice as we are going through some monumental changes at the moment socially, technologically, politically and with COVID.
The Stoic claim – and this is an important point – is not that we should deny or repress our emotions; it is rather that we should try to avoid having them in the first place.
This is hard to do and takes a lot of practice.
Conversely, excessive good fortune is in fact really bad for us. When are we ever tested if we never experience any difficulties? How will we ever develop the virtues of patience, courage or resilience if everything always goes well? There is no worse luck, Seneca says, than unending luxury and wealth, which will serve only to make us lazy, complacent, ungrateful and greedy for more.
I do not agree with those who recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war.
Once we grasp that something was inevitable, we shall see that bemoaning it is pointless, will only generate further distress and simply displays a failure to grasp the way the world works.
Make a habit of regularly observing the universal process of change; be assiduous in your attention to it, and school yourself thoroughly in this branch of study; there is nothing more elevating to the mind. For when man realizes that at any moment he may have to leave everything behind him and depart from the company of his fellows, he casts off the body and thenceforward dedicates himself wholly to the service of justice in his personal actions and compliance with Nature in all else. No thought is wasted on what others may say or think of him or practice against him; two things alone suffice him, justice in his daily dealings and contentment with all fate’s apportionings.
In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca says that, for many of us, by the time we are really ready to start living, our lives are almost over. It’s not that our lives are too short; the problem is that we waste so much time. We procrastinate, pursue things of little or no value, or wander aimlessly through life with no clear focus. Some people strive to achieve success so that they can be wealthy enough to buy luxury goods that will end up discarded in a rubbish bin long before their lives are done. In so doing they waste the greater part of their lives. Others strive for nothing, just going through the motions of daily routines without any sense that the most valuable commodity they have – time – is slipping away. Some people have a clear idea of what they want to do but, paralyzed by fear of failure, put off and delay things and conjure up excuses for why now is not the time to act. All these different types, Seneca says, fail to live.
It is only in rare moments that most people really feel alive. The bulk of life is reduced to merely passing time. So what’s the remedy? How does Seneca think we can take control of our lives and live them to the full?
First of all we should stop worrying about what others think. Don’t try to impress others; don’t pursue their favour in order to secure some advantage. Too many people care about what others think of them, but pay little attention to their own thoughts. They sacrifice their time to others but rarely set aside time for themselves. Yet it’s absurd, Seneca suggests, that some might be so protective of their money and possessions and yet so freely give away thir far more valuable time.
We also need to hold in our minds the brute fact that we shall die. Our time is not unlimited.
With this renewed sense of the value of time and a determined effort to prioritize our own leisure, what does Seneca think we out to do? He quickly dismisses the playing of games and sports, as well as the popular holiday activity of what he calls “cooking one’s body in the sun.” Indeed, he attacks many of the things that are often referred to today as “leisure activities.” Instead, he recommends philosophy as the finest and most worthy activity, by which he means thinking, learning, reading history and literature, reflecting on the past and the present. This is the opposite of rushing around in the pursuit of worldly success, whcih, he says, is “won at the cost of life.”
Seneca’s essay is a polemic against what he saw as the shallowness of the culture of the relatively wealthy in first-century Rome. It is striking – in some ways frighteningly so – how relevant all this remains today.
Your own life, then, is a gift, and one day you will have to give it back. The same goes for the lives of your loved ones:
Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something,’ only ‘I returned it.’ Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, she was returned.Seneca
We have a duty of care to all other human beings, and they suggest that as we develop our rationality we shall come to see ourselves as members of a single, global community of all humankind.
I really like the above quote, especially in these times. “America First” indeed! I believe the Trumpers mean “Me First!” Humans remain very tribal and do not like “different.” With the invention of airplanes and the internet the obstacles of distance are no more, yet they have made almost no dent in hundreds of thousands of years in tribal thinking. My country, my religion, and my ideas are right and yours are wrong.
In Rome, committed Stoics were prepared to face up to tyrants rather than compromise their principles. In so doing they embodied the virtues of courage and justice. Far from counselling political passivity, Stoicism encourages us to live up to the very highest standards of political action.