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Archetypes of Wisdom Douglas J. Soccio Chapter 7 The Stoic: Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius
Learning Objectives On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions: What is hedonism? What is Cyrenaic hedonism? What is Epicurean hedonism? What is Cynicism? How is Socrates related to Cynicism and Stoicism? What is the Stoic Logos? What is under our control according to the Stoics? What is the Cosmopolis? Who was James Stockdale?
Stoicism Initially, Stoicism emerged as a reaction against the belief that pleasure is always good and pain is always bad or evil. The Stoic seeks serenity (peace of mind) through self- discipline. Happiness comes only through detachment from all things external. The disciplined, reasonable person can be happy under any and all conditions. For the Stoics, everything is a matter of attitude. Nothing can make you happy or unhappy without your consent.
Hedonism To a considerable extent, Stoicism is a refutation of the belief that happiness is determined by means of pleasure and pain. This kind of philosophy is called hedonism (from the Greek root hedone, meaning pleasure). One of the earliest schools of hedonism was started on the coast of North Africa by Aristippus (c B.C.E.), who felt that, because sensory pleasures are more intense than mental or emotional ones, they are the best of all. Also, actual pleasures in the present are more desirable than potential pleasures in the future, since the latter may or may not come and things may be different for us then.
Epicureanism The unrefined hedonism of Aristippus was soon improved by Epicurus ( B.C.E.), who moved to Athens at the age of eighteen to complete his military service. Believing that political activities and ambitions were pointless, Epicurus started a school of philosophy called “the Garden.” This was one of the few places in Greece where women were allowed and encouraged to interact with men as equals. Epicurus claimed that only the quality of our pleasures and pains is important. This departure from Aristippus’ emphasis on quantity distinguishes Epicureanism: a desire for a pleasant life of simplicity, prudence, and friendship.
Cynicism Another influence on the origins of Stoicism was Cynicism, a philosophic “school” in the loosest sense. Founded by Antisthenes (c B.C.E.), who formed a school called the Cynosarges (The Silver Dog), the Cynics revolted against the rigidity of Plato and Aristotle (while admiring Socrates’ disdain for fashion). The Cynics believed that the very essence of civilization is corrupt, and so lived austere, unconventional lives. They distrusted luxury as a “hook” that always brought complications and frustration into people’s lives. What happiness there is could only come from self- discipline and rational control of all desires and appetites, with minimal contact with conventional society.
Stoic Admiration The philosophical school known as Stoicism was founded in Greece by Zeno (c B.C.E.) around 300 B.C.E. Because Zeno lectured at a place called the stoa poikile, or painted porch, his followers were known as “men of the porch.” Alexander’s empire fell apart immediately after his death, and the Romans quickly adopted Stoicism (as they did so much of Greek culture). One reason that Stoicism flourished in Rome may have been the admiration that Stoics had for the Cynics, whom they regarded as a sort of ideal – with their sturdy character and “free open-air spirit.”
Roman Stoicism Stoicism appealed to Romans living in times of great uncertainty, under emperors of widely differing abilities and virtues. It spread throughout the Roman world because it was advocated by three important public figures: Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E.). Cato (95 – 46 B.C.E.). Seneca (c. 4 B.C. – 6.5 C.E.) a Roman senator and one of the finest Stoic writers.
Epictetus: From Slave to Sage Ironically, one of the most important Stoic philosophers was a former slave named Epictetus (c C.E.). Perhaps because a slave’s life is not his own, Epictetus had insight into the major issue of Stoicism: controlling what we can and accepting what is beyond our control. As a slave, the only absolute control Epictetus had was over his own reactions to what happened. His motto was Anechou kai apechou: Bear and forbear. Freed after Nero’s death in 68 C.E., Epictetus became a well-known teacher. At about 90 C.E., all philosophers were ordered out of Rome by the emperor Domitian, so he fled to Nicopolis in Greece, where he taught until very old.
Philosopher-King Another notable Stoic was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius ( C.E.). While their pay scales varied, the philosophies of Epictetus and Aurelius were very similar. By temperament a scholar and a recluse, Marcus Aurelius lived surrounded by commotion, deception, and crowds, and so told himself – in his journal, known to us as his Meditations – to “look within” and to “only attend to thyself” (the only thing the Stoics believe we can control). The last truly great figure of Imperial Rome, Marcus Aurelius was once described as “by nature a saint and a sage, by profession a warrior and a ruler” – a Stoic Philosopher-King.
The Fated Life The Stoics believed that the actual course of our lives is directed by the Logos – which they thought of as World Reason, Cosmic Mind, God, and Providence, or fate. The Stoics learned, as many of us do, that our lives are not entirely our own. But rather than complain about what they could not control, the Stoics chose to master what they could – their own minds. The Stoics felt that serenity comes to those whose will is in accord with the World Reason, the Logos, as such thinking leads to a reduction of frustration and anxiety. As Epictetus says, “we are actors playing roles we do not choose, and our duty is to play them as best we can, knowing that our fate is part of a much larger order.”
Stoic Wisdom If this is true, then nothing that happens can be “wrong” or “bad,” since everything that happens is part of God’s rational plan. If your life is beyond your control, direct your efforts toward what you can control – your attitude or will. Developing a disinterested rational will is a matter of having no personal attachments or motives. For Stoics, wisdom consists in thinking of things that happen to you as you would any other event in the world, as a necessary part of the whole. And as everyone else is in the same situation, we are all part of a “universal city” – where each person is indifferent to themselves, knowing that “Logos knows best.”
Control versus Influence Even though the Stoics believed in destiny, or fate, they also talked about choosing appropriate actions, in addition to just controlling our attitudes. In other words, there appear to be gaps in our fate – and there you can have some influence. For example, technically speaking, you cannot absolutely control your grades, although you have considerable influence over them. Likewise, we do not control our destinies; we influence them just enough so that we should do our best to behave responsibly.
Some Things Are Not in Our Control According to Epictetus, “Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.” Once an individual realizes that how long he or she lives, who likes or doesn’t like them, and their social status are beyond their control, the individual can quit being fearful. One can manage his or her health with moderation, but one cannot be bitter if after watching his or her diet and exercising daily, he or she develops cancer. Bitterness will not get a person well. Bitterness, or envy, or resentment are never one’s fate; they are always the choice of the individual.
Some Things Are in Our Control However, writes Epictetus, “In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, aversion; and in a word, whatever are our own acts.” What is in our power is our free will. We control our feelings about things, because we control our thinking. This frees us from depending on other people’s opinions of us for our self-esteem or happiness. We suffer to the extent that we take our lives personally. So, our status, good fortunes, mishaps, and relationships should be evaluated with the same disinterested detachment that we would give to everything else.
Suffering and Courage Stoicism is a “mature” philosophy in that its appeal seems to increase with experience, that is, with frustration and disappointment. Growing up emotionally and philosophically involves adopting realistic expectations and accepting one’s limits. As Seneca says, “Prosperity can come to the vulgar and to ordinary talents, but to triumph over adversity and the disasters of mortal life is the privilege of the great man.” So, while making reasonable efforts to get what we want, it is wise to learn to be happy with what we get.
Stoicism Today Today, Stoicism forms the basis of various cognitive (rationalistic) psychological therapies. Three of the most influential are: William Glasser’s reality therapy. Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy. Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.
The Life of James Bond Stockdale What we know as the Enchiridion of Epictetus can be a powerful consolation and support to people undergoing the severest trials. James Bond Stockdale ( ), a vice admiral (retired) in the U.S. Navy, credited the lessons of Epictetus with helping him survive as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over seven years, including four in solitary confinement. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after his release. Stockdale published an article titled “The World of Epictetus” in 1978.
Discussion Questions What do you think of James Stockdale’s claim that a good philosophical education is highly practical? Review his position and comments. What traits does he have in common with Epictetus? Do you agree or disagree that Stockdale is a Stoic?
Chapter Review: Key Concepts and Thinkers Stoicism Hedonism Cyrenaic hedonism Cynicism Cynic Logos Stoics Marcus Aurelius ( C. E.) Epictetus (c C.E.). Aristippus (c B.C.E.) Epicurus ( B.C.E.) Zeno (c B.C.E.) James Bond Stockdale ( )