Stoicism was founded by Zeno in about 300 B.C.E. It wasn’t created in a vacuum, however. The Stoics were strongly influenced by other philosophies. In fact, almost all of the western philosophy traces its origins back to one remarkable man, Socrates.
The Stoics agreed with Socrates when he said that conventional goods are ‘in themselves nothing’, that they are ‘neither good nor bad’, or more plainly, what most people view as important or worthwhile is not inherently beneficial or harmful. Although popularly conceived of as ‘good’, it is clear to see that wealth, for example, can as easily be used to cause harm as it can be used to produce benefit. Wealth may be used by its possessors to harm others, or even themselves (as would be the case for someone who ended up using their wealth to obtain illegal drugs resulting in damage to their health or even death – or in their being caught and sent to prison). Clearly, wealth cannot be considered in itself as good. What is really good lies in those qualities of character, the virtues of temperance, justice, courage and wisdom, through whose application the conventional ‘goods’ may be used to benefit the agent, as well as, often, other people too.
The Stoics refer to the conventional ‘goods’, including wealth and health, as the indifferents, because such ‘goods’ are indifferent with respect to being good or bad. They fall into neither category. The conventional ‘goods’ are also indifferent with respect to our really needing them to achieve true well-being and for its being possible for us to flourish. This does not mean that we should ourselves be indifferent towards the indifferents, as we will see later. Such things as food and shelter, and possibly a few other things, are clearly needed for living at all. In saying that these things are indifferent, the Stoics do not mean that we can actually live entirely without them. In some way they are needed and even desired, but however we come to understand this, the Stoics insist that the indifferent things are not in themselves good or bad.
For the Stoics then, of supreme importance is the development of character: what matters more than anything is that we should in all circumstances, and at all times, act virtuously, which means that when it is appropriate we must act with self-restraint, we must be just towards others, we must face difficult or painful circumstances with courage, and we must choose our activities and carry them out wisely. The Stoics maintain that merely in doing this, if we can do this, we will live well, we will experience greater serenity and deeper moments of joy. Nothing else is required for us to flourish fully.
For many, if not for all, changing our attitude towards the ‘indifferents’, the conventional ‘goods’ that are not really good at all, is very difficult. For many people, their material ‘goods’ are of ultimate importance: they quite literally devote their lives to acquiring and maintaining these indifferent things. We live in a society that says loudly and persistently, in so many ways, that material goods are of extreme importance. So many people expend their efforts upon the pursuit of, not what they need, but what they have been convinced they want. Sadly, this is a futile endeavor, for no matter how much is obtained, it is inevitable that there is always more to acquire, more to want. Clearly there is some sort of folly at work here. Indeed, the Stoics describe people who are not Stoic sages, as fools.
Now might be a good time to start creating a Notebook. This is separate book or location, different from the journal you have been keeping so far. The purpose of the Notebook is to collect and organize the teachings that mean something to you. These teachings will come from the readings of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. They may also be found elsewhere, in the writings or sayings of other wise people. Continue to react to these sayings in your Journal, but you Notebook is meant to hold easy to find teachings, so you can go to them quickly when you need them.
Here is the story of the philosopher Stilpo (Seneca spells Stilpo with a ‘b’), who was head of the Megarian school. He lived too early to be a Stoic, and was in fact one of Zeno’s teachers. Very few people have the misfortune to lose everything, as Stilpo did when Demetrius’ forces captured and sacked his home town. Starting out as students who wish to ‘make progress’ towards leading the philosophic life, the idea that someone should be able to retain their equanimity and poise, and truly remain a ‘happy man’ amid such destruction and loss, sounds preposterous.
We should pause here for a moment. We need to be very clear here however. When Seneca uses the term 'happy,' or 'happiness,' he doesn't mean that Stilpo is experiencing joy, or that he is feeling good. He is translating the Greek term eudaimonia, which could also be translated as flourishing. Seneca is saying that Stilpo is still able to exercise virtue, that he is able to distinguish between what is and is not under his control, and is able to accept what has happened with serenity. (We will be discussing how Stoics deal with grief and challenges to the status quo in later lessons.)
What Seneca is pointing out is that Stilpo understood that in his ability to flourish did not depend on anything that could be taken away from him. These things are not ‘in our power’, not ‘in our control’ as the Stoics say, and they are the indifferent things. Stilpo’s 'happiness' is dependent only upon possession of the ‘valuables’ that he still has with him, and these are the virtues, ‘the qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character’.
This does not mean that Stilpo did not care for his wife and children, and for his material possessions. While it was his lot to have them, he cared for them as a man of good character should. To get a better grip on this we can make a distinction using terms that the ancient Stoics did not actually employ. We need to distinguish between our interests and projects on the one hand, and the way we carry on the business of pursuing our interests and furthering our projects on the other. Everything that we engage in in daily life will further some project which in turn satisfies some interest we have. Interests would include earning an income, gaining an education, staying healthy, raising children, etc., etc. A project is some activity we perform which furthers an interest, such as taking a course at a local college, or taking up a new diet. Notice that interests and projects concern indifferent things (with the singular and unique exception of our interest to perfect our characters and thereby to fully flourish and live with serenity). But the way we carry out our projects – noting that the way we act in pursuit of something is entirely distinct from the project itself – concerns our capacity to act virtuously, to act in ways characteristic of the person who has perfected their character. This, say the Stoics, is what is good or bad, and this is what is of supreme importance.
Once we adopt this view of how we engage in our affairs, we can see that when disaster strikes, whether in small ways as frustrating setbacks, or as complete calamities, it is our interests and projects that are harmed. As agents endeavoring to perfect our characters, to act in ways that are proper for rational human beings, we have not been harmed. Seen in this way, agents – that is, rational, sentient and self-conscious creatures, capable of deciding what to do and the means of doing it – are not the sort of thing that can be harmed. Stilpo could well have said: ‘All my interests and projects have ended today. My interests to be a good husband and a good father have been brought to an end – I can no longer pursue them. So too for all my other activities. I can no longer be a good friend to my neighbors, for all my neighbors have been slain.’
However, he could have continued: ‘But my wife and children, my neighbors and all my possessions, were never really mine to begin with. Fate entrusted them to me for a time, and now they have been taken back. What is truly my own, my capacities to act wisely and with self-restraint, to be just and courageous, I still have, and these truly good things I will deploy upon my new interests and projects. I will be a good friend to all whom I meet; I will deal fairly with people – in short, I will carry on as before, doing my best to perfect my character and to be a good man.’
Stilpo and Zeno, and the Stoics who came after them, declare that well-being is to be found not in what we have as material possessions, but what we have in terms of good characters, whose qualities we deploy upon circumstances and situations that we encounter in the course of living. These circumstances and situations are ultimately beyond our control, from an eyelash falling in our eye, to the death of a loved one. Even to focus on this fully and honestly can be unsettling and disturbing, but doing this, and recognizing the truth of how things really are, is an important step towards the peace and equanimity that are sought by those striving for enlightenment.
There is very little doubt that Seneca wrote for publication, and his writings have the polished finish of carefully crafted essays. Marcus Aurelius, however, almost certainly did not intend his writings to be published. What we read in the Meditations constitutes notes and jottings put down by the author as his own private repository of thoughts and explorations. The ‘chapters’ in the ‘books’ veer from topic to topic, themes are picked up and dropped, then picked up again, seemingly at random.
Unlike Seneca, Marcus is not preaching or teaching, he is merely making notes. But in reading both authors, we get a sense of how these thinkers tried to incorporate Stoic ideals into their daily lives. When Marcus addresses the reader as ‘you’ he means himself.
But in many instances the sense and the force of Marcus’ meaning is preserved if we suppose that he is addressing us. In addressing himself, Marcus was addressing someone who sought to live as a Stoic, and much of what he says is directly applicable to us.
The following sections from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:
These readings may come across as somewhat obscure or rather puzzling, but hopefully not wholly so. Marcus is writing to remind himself of what he already knows, and as you become better acquainted with Stoic ideas, you will find that the Meditations make more sense than they did at first. You will find also that they are not only a source for Stoic ideas, but are also a source of inspiration for students on the Stoic path.
Seneca takes the news from his friend Liberalis about the destruction of the city of Lyons by fire as a cue for writing a letter to Lucilius about how we should face misfortune and mortality generally.
With your discussion partner, talk about personal disaster scenarios, real or potential. Seneca uses this same technique with his friend. Be sure to include the perspectives of both the ‘worldly’ Liberalis, and the ‘Stoic-like’ Stilpo. Try to explain the Stoic perspective, that while care and responsibility are important, what is of real value is within each of us.
Use your Journal to continue to write up a record of your daily affairs. Each day try to identify one or two of your interests and projects. These will likely be the most basic interests that your life is devoted to. Think about the roles you choose to fulfill, such as being a spouse, being a parent, being an employer or employee; then try to identify some of the projects that you engage in to further your interests. Answer a few questions each day:
How well or how badly are your projects going?
- How you dealt with the situations you face?
- How do you react to people who challenge your focus?
- How do you decide which project or interest takes precedence when a conflict between the two arises?
As the days pass, try to be conscious on an hour-by-hour basis of which project you are engaged on, and try to be aware of the distinction between what you are doing from the way you do it.
Pay attention in particular to the way you handle setbacks or frustrations. If anything goes badly, try to be aware that you have not in yourself been harmed, though possibly your project has.
In your journal focus on your actions and attitudes that you feel can demonstrate your capacity to distinguish harm to yourself from harm to your project.