Stoicism: an ancient philosophy with contemporary value

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John Harrison

(From left to right) Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, Zeno of Citium.

By John Harrison, Skyline College

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor.
He ruled from 161-180 A.D., and for 15 of his nearly 20 years as emperor, he fought the Antonine Plague, which killed Aurelius’ predecessor, and would eventually kill him.
Aurelius practiced a virtue ethic called Stoicism, which values striking a balance with the natural world, and living virtuously through self-discipline. As we begin the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, these ancient virtues are making a modern comeback.
“Stoicism, in general, is still alive and well,” said David Eck, professor of philosophy at Cañada College. “People might call themselves Neo-Stoics. For both ancient Stoics and present-day ones, the idea is to focus on what you can control, the general idea being how you react.”
Stoic teachings emphasize being at peace with the elements of your life which you have no direct influence on, such as a global pandemic.
“It’s a kind of ethic where one tries to live in accordance with nature and tries to control one’s inner self,” said Chris Colombetti, professor of philosophy at Skyline College. “There are certain things in your life you can’t control — for example, if a person gets terribly ill. There might not be much they can do about that physically, but they can have some control over their own attitude, their own response to the situation. You can’t control the fact that you’re sick, but the Stoic message is that you have control over your response to it, your reaction.”
One of the concepts of modern Stoicism is something called amor fati, a term coined by Friedrich Nietzsche that roughly translates to “love of fate.” According to Ryan Holiday, author of a book called “The Daily Stoic”, amor fati “is the Stoic mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment no matter how challenging as something to be embraced, not avoided.”
It’s basically about appreciating how difficult circumstances can teach us valuable lessons. With 2020 only a few months behind us and 2021 shaping up to be another interesting year, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the ancient teachings of the Stoics and how they can help us with the challenges of today.

What are the four main Stoic virtues?
1. Courage
Seneca the Younger once said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” This world can be scary on a good day, but in these uncertain times full of disease, violence, and general unease about the state of our planet, courage is key. Facing the challenges of our everyday lives with bravery and resolve is the Stoic way, as is remembering that things could always have been worse.
Tip: Try spending some time each day contemplating the worst-case scenarios. This will not only prepare you in case something awful happens, but will give you a new perspective on your quality of life.
2. Justice
To be a good Stoic, one must choose to be of highest moral character. This means something different for every person, but there is always a common good to consider: Do your actions, whether intended or otherwise, cause suffering in others? Do you treat others as equals?
Tip: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Stoics believed this long before the creation of Christianity, and it’s as good a piece of advice now as it was two thousand years ago. As we begin to reintegrate into society with vaccines becoming more widespread, this simple rule will work in your favor.
3. Moderation
Oscar Wilde was not a Stoic, but he’s quoted as saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Your body, or self, is one of the only things in this world that you have control over, and that control should be intentional. The ancient Stoics believed that excess was unnecessary — You don’t need much to survive, and very little is often just enough.
Tip: Pay attention to what goes into your body. There’s a sweet spot between extremes and essentials. Quarantine has more than a few of us indulging in our vices on a regular basis, but it’s smart to take a break now and then. As California begins to reopen bars, restaurants, and clubs, now is the perfect time to give your body a chance to rest.
4. Wisdom
For the ancient Stoics, this meant understanding what was in one’s control and what was not, and how to apply that knowledge to one’s life. For example, if it’s raining outside, there’s no reason to waste your energy feeling upset about it. Yes, you may get wet. But since there’s nothing you can do about the water falling from the sky, why spend time and effort worrying about it?
Tip: While you can’t control the weather, there are things you can control. Did you bring an umbrella? Wear a rain jacket? Boots? Wisdom allows us to make choices that improve our lives. Practice recognizing when you’re feeling upset about something beyond your control, then think about what you can actually do to improve your situation.

The Ancient Stoics: Who were they?
“The goal of life is living in agreement with Nature.” – Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium (not to be confused with Zeno of Elea) lived from 334-262 B.C. and discovered an interest in philosophy when he hit rock bottom — literally. He had been quite successful as a merchant, but on one of his journeys his ship, rich with cargo, sunk near Athens, the heart of ancient Greek philosophy — so the shipwrecked Zeno made the city his home. He read the teachings of Socrates and began to study under Crates of Thebes of the Cynic school of thought. At the age of 33, Zeno found himself teaching his own lessons at the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) in Athens’ agora, or public square. His choice of venue became the namesake of his philosophy, and Stoicism was born.
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” – Seneca
Seneca the Younger was born over 250 years after the death of Zeno, and over that period of time, Stoicism had only grown in popularity. At a young age, Seneca and his family moved to Rome, where he studied Stoicism with Attalus. After some years of illness, he eventually won a seat at the Roman Senate, but was forced to go into exile for political reasons. After spending eight years away from Rome, Seneca was called back home to become a tutor to a young emperor Nero. It was Nero who later ordered the death of Seneca, forcing him to take poison and end his life by his own hand.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will. ” – Epictetus
Epictetus was born into slavery (his name here translates into “acquired”), and taught philosophy in Rome until all philosophers were banished from the city by Emperor Domitian. None of his original writings survived the ages, but his teachings and lectures were documented by one of his students, and can now be read in “Discourses of Epictetus” and “Enchiridion of Epictetus”.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the sixteenth emperor of Rome, and ruled during one of the most severe plagues the empire had ever known. He had been introduced to Stoicism during his early years, and wrote many musings on the subject in his journal, which can now be read under the title “Meditations”.

This story was originally published on The Skyline View on April 13, 2021.