Upward HO! What Is A Stoic Part ii

Since no one paid attention to me the first time, I shall continue…

That is the basic attitude of Stoicism, to move on regardless of “externals,” in this case, what other people think, how other people react. As long as what you are doing is “correct” and “Virtuous.” This is the goal of the Stoic throughout, to learn the “correct” and “Virtuous” behavior in all situations, behave that way at all times, follow through, always. It is, as they say on Broadway, a tough row to hoe. Or something like that. Hardly anyone ever makes it there, completely. No one, really. But one does try…

Of course, you have to “learn” what “correct” behavior is and what “Virtue” means according to Stoics. The first, what is “correct,” has very much to do with the issues discussed earlier, about what is and isn’t in your control, and the matter of emotions, but then moves further into conjunction with “Virtue.” And that is very much a subject in contention at the moment, under debate among “modern” Stoics in a way it never was among the Greeks and Romans of old. Unfortunately, in a short format, it doesn’t get less confusing than that. But, ever onward…

The “ancient” Stoics fairly well conformed to an ideal that the ultimate Virtue was knowledge/wisdom of all things; that the “perfect” Stoic was the Stoic “Sage,” all knowing, all wise, and all Stoics should strive to become that “Sage”; and, in the meantime, one would do well to maintain a life of Honor, Justice, Courage, Constancy and Compassion. This is what the best “Sages-in-waiting” (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and others) taught.

But, what that meant to those Romans, who lived in a male-dominated society, centered on a deity system where belief in Zeus was a given and war was an almost constant necessity, and certainty, is quite different from what those values mean, and how they may be interpreted by us, today, in a global economy, gender neutral (we hope) racially uncentered (we hope) as we wander out to explore the stars (we hope). How those ideas are redefined is something taking place at the moment. It is an exciting or excruciatingly frustrating experience, depending upon one’s frame of reference. Interesting times, as some people say. As to “Virtue”…

For Epictetus, divorce and adultery were absolute sins, never to be forgiven. For example. For most Westerners today (and, don’t forget, he was a Westerner, partner, way back then…) that just ain’t kosher (and, today, it ain’t even halal in a lot of places…).

However, one basic remains intact. Act, always, with Virtue and despite externals. Do this and you will be correct and — believe it or not — forever happy. Oh, forgot one other, teensy-weensy ingredient…

You have to give up desire. But, let’s get back to emotions, in general, first. Desire is a mess.

As I said previously, the matter of emotions is confusing to many, but actually quite simple. Seneca breaks it down into three slices of pie, if you will (pie is good — emotion, not always): The automatic emotions (that you cannot avoid) the good emotions (that you may favor if you chose) and the “evil” emotions (that demonstrably do all humans only harm, and, therefore, you must train yourself to avoid or control responses to).

The automatic emotions are those like shock or repulsion and are comparable to physical responses such as when someone tries to poke you in the eyes and you automatically blink them closed. You recover from these quickly (or should!) and return to your “natural” state of calm.

The real focus is upon the “evil” emotions: grief, fear, intemperance, envy, malice, avarice. Each one of these is a maelstrom worthy of its own book (believe me, it’s been done…) and deserving years of discipline to master. But they can be mastered. Each of us has conquered some fears, all of us (hopefully) have stopped being envious of someone (at least) at some time, and ceased feeling malice towards someone (c’mon, really?). Learning temperance and stopping avarice are skills. Like riding a bike or driving a car.

Last comes the beast: Desire. Desire is an emotion, too, but it also crosses a boundary into becoming an external, because desire is usually attached to something outside of yourself and your feelings. It is almost always attached to something tangible you want, isn’t it? Something or someone, or something from someone, like a feeling of reciprocation, a sentiment, a rewarding response, like appreciation or even applause.

That, my friend, is the greatest, most destructive emotion of all. It can and does the most damage to the most people, and the most “productive” people, on the planet. Any fool can feel fear, become swamped with anger, be drowning in envy, get lost in debt because of avarice or lose their minds because of greed. Everyone experiences grief and can swoon under its force. But desire can destroy the rock of the most creative, intelligent minds. The artist who has spent decades perfecting her craft but cannot perform on stage…not because of fear but because of an anxiety developing out of a desire for approval that may or may not come. The Nobel Laureate who cannot teach because he expects students to react a certain way and when they don’t…he starts screaming at them. And, let’s face it, we know this story, too: the young boy or girl who wants to say,” Will you please go out with me?” but simply can’t, and POOF there goes the perfect relationship and a lifetime of happiness.

But conquering desire, first among all the emotions, living Virtuously, and avoiding externals, are the keys to being forever happy. This the Stoics assure us. (And, by the by, they aren’t the only ones…)

“But people tell me wanting things is good, it helps to make goals…and stuff!” Perhaps. But, for the Stoic, there is only one true goal, and that is to pursue Virtue. Everything else falls into line after that. If you still have some questions about “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up,” Virtue will help you quantify the equation and resolve any remaining issues in that regard as to your true Nature.

What is your true Nature? Another good question, and another one Stoics debate. The ancients thought it something you either live out or work to improve. Depending upon how you interpret what they say. If you are a thief, at least be the best thief you can be and then enjoy your life in prison (be happy there, because you are a thief and that’s where you belong because you are, after all, a thief, you thief). Others seems to think it is more Virtuous to be Virtuous, that everyone is born with a “good” nature and somehow many get led astray and need to find their way back through hard work and discipline. And sometimes it is simply hard to tell what they are saying. If you read Epictetus as if you were actually attending his “classes” and taking notes, you might think he was saying, “You’re all a bunch of idiots, cowards and wretches who need a good kick in the ass! Now, get back to work before I give you all a thrashing, you worthless pieces of dirt!” Take a look around you. Is he right, or what?

Marcus Aurelius, who wrote what many believe to be one of the most compelling works of Stoic wisdom, liked to think we are all good-natured and misguided, believing that we all simply need compassion and patience. His son killed him. His daughter probably helped (the jury is out).

Discovering your true nature is sort of like finally ending what Jacques Lacan has labeled the mirror-phase. It’s like finishing one part of your psychological development and moving on to the next part of maturation. When it happens it happens, and it is quite natural. It can also be disturbing, but, you deal with it. Learning you actually won’t be a rock star, but a rock climber, or a geologist, can actually be quite life-affirming. Learning that you’ll be busting rocks in the state pen? Well, it could be worse, I suppose. Be a Stoic about it. It is just an external, after all. Three hots and a cot, they say. Can’t beat that. Well, it’s a possibility…

Oh, those good emotions? They’re okay. Take ’em or leave ’em. If anyone cares, maybe I’ll write about that some other time…