Stoicism: Finding the courage to live a better life
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts” — Marcus Aurelius
The ancient philosophy of Stoicism is wildly popular at the moment. Long dead Stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca the Younger have become best selling authors. This is largely thanks to the self-help industry, which has rediscovered and repackaged Stoicism as a kind of self-help philosophy.
This repackaging is partly the reason why Stoicism is one of the most misunderstood and abused philosophical schools.
Stoicism is often sold to us as a philosophy for “action”, for busy people who don’t have the time to contemplate over philosophical puzzles about life. Selectively quoting Seneca the Younger, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus out of context would give anybody the strong impression that that is the case.
In some ways “Stoicism”, as it is preached by many of its new adherents, is the new sophistry: a way of actually avoiding contemplation and hard thinking. A “philosophy for action”, as well as being a contradiction in terms, is one that takes things for granted, that rests on given assumptions.
A System of Thought
Stoicism informs action in its ethical guise but is far more than an ethical philosophy. The Stoic thinkers of ancient Greece developed a theory of the universe, a physics, a system of logic, and a theory of reality that the ethics of Stoicism simply derive from. The very basis of Stoicism is to not take things for granted but to contemplate the very nature of our being.
At the heart of Stoicism, like most other schools of philosophy, is the embrace of contemplation. For that reason their intellectual contribution to the ancient world was immense. The ultimate lesson of Stoicism is this: to live a fulfilling life is to ask yourself difficult questions about what it is to be a human being. The Stoics prized reason above all else and reason requires discipline.
It is often said that philosophy is the attempt to answer the question “how should I live?” To attempt to answer that question requires coming up with a reasonable understanding of the world and your relation to it.
It’s not necessarily about finding an “ultimate truth”, it’s about finding traction to walk with when so many other people are slipping around.
Knowing yourself and your place in the world will allow you to consider how you should live and make sure you are living up to the values that you set for yourself.
Meditation experts often give the following advice: if you’re “too busy” to meditate for ten minutes a day, you should meditate for an hour a day.
This is true of contemplation too. If you are too busy to contemplate life, you’re distracting yourself from your life, you need to contemplate more. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Like everything worthwhile in life, quality thoughts do not come easy.
Under the tutorship of Diognetus and Junius Rusticus, Marcus Aurelius embraced the asceticism of the philosophic way of life. As a boy he wore a “rough” cloak and would sleep on the floor. He wrote that his mother taught him “religious piety, simplicity in diet” and keeping clear of the “ways of the rich.”
Marcus shared power for a while with Lucius Verus, his adoptive brother. The two inherited an empire at a very troubled time in its history. Huge migrations of people began to put pressure on the Roman borders, and Rome had become embroiled in several long wars with the Parthian Empire and several Germanic tribes in the north. These conflicts lasted for Marcus’s entire reign.
He was victorious in all the wars he fought, but the price of victory was high: legions returning from Parthia brought a plague with them that devastated the Empire’s population and may have killed his co-ruler.
His personal notes, which went on to be published as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, have a marked melancholy about them. The philosopher was a reluctant emperor, weary of conflict, and sought solace in his own thoughts as Stoics believed they should.
His writings were intended to be private and so his ideas are stripped of the philosophic context from which they derive. Marcus was not forming any arguments or theories and therefore didn’t need to reference the philosophers that came before him in any depth. He was simply journaling his philosophic thoughts.
Marcus is far too often quoted out of context. Pithy motivational statements are intellectual junk food. Marcus was rigorously schooled in Stoic philosophy, and as a bona fide philosopher the emperor deserves better.
His tutor Fronto wrote to Marcus, “it is better never to have touched the teaching of philosophy…than to have tasted it superficially, with the edge of the lips.” The destined emperor took the tutor’s advice and fully embraced the Stoic philosophy until his death.
Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy in ten quotations
Below I have taken a “top 10” of Marcus Aurelius quotes and placed them in the context of Stoic philosophy. Accompanying each quote is a short expansion that will lay out the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy in a careful sequential order. These expansions will give you a better explanation on how the quotes could help you contemplate life.
1. The unity of all things
“All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred”
The oneness of the universe is an ancient idea in philosophy. This is called “monism”.
Monism is the belief that there is ultimately one substance which manifests in a plurality of appearances (like fire, water, earth and flesh). Most Stoics believed the one substance was God. Marcus wrote: “there is one substance and one law, namely, common reason in all thinking creatures, and all truth is one if, as we believe, there is only one path of perfection for all beings who share the same mind.”
Since God is in everything and not separated from us — there is no realm higher than nature, and God is all-pervading in nature — one should act in accordance with nature to be close to God.
Notable proponents of the idea of monism include Parmenides (c. 500 BC) and Baruch Spinoza (17th century). Zeno of Elias, a follower of Parmenides, attempted to demonstrate the oneness of things with his famous paradoxes.
2. Everything is predetermined
“Everything that happens happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so.”
If the universe comprises of different aspects of a divine one, then everything must be perfect. If everything is perfect, then everything can be no other way.
The Stoics believed that all events are predetermined (this is called “determinism” in philosophy) and that you have either no control or very little control over circumstances. Everything is fated. Many Stoics believed in divination (fortune-telling) methods such as astrology and lots (the ancient equivalent of tarot cards) since everything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is interconnected in fate.
3. You have power over your mind, but not events.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
You may not be able to change the course of events, but you do, however, have control over your own thoughts and emotions. This is how Stoicism is strongly associated with equanimity: things can go badly, but we can control our response. To simply know this is to find mental strength. Mental strength is what the Stoics are famous for. Tragedy and life’s ups and downs are met with calm and dignity.
Marcus Aurelius lost at least two infant children. In an extraordinary passage of Meditations, he wrote: “One man prays: ‘How I may not lose my little child’, but you must pray: ‘How I may not be afraid to lose him’.”
The difference between the Stoic and the common man is in this example; the common man prays that he is spared of misfortune, the Stoic prays that he can find the strength to accept misfortune.
British public schools taught Stoicism as part of a classical education and it is widely thought responsible for the famous British “stiff upper lip” — a sense of equanimity in tough, even tragic, circumstances.
4. The impediment is the way
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Since everything, according to the Stoics, is determined — “everything that happens happens as it should” — you could not do anything about the obstacles you may face. Instead the mind can only find an opportunity in the obstacle because the mind is all that we truly have control over.
The full quote is as follows: “Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (My emphasis).
In this respect Stoicism is a kind of alchemy of fate: problems and mistakes become golden lessons, tragedies can become opportunities for spiritual growth.
5. There is no single truth we can know, only perspectives
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
The universe is perfect and true, but we are but one fragment of the whole so therefore cannot fully know that perfection and truth. Here Marcus is practicing “perspectivism”, another ancient and common thread in philosophy that rejects the idea that we can access an ultimate truth.
Unlike “relativism”, which sees no truth in the world whatsoever, perspectivism does not discount the idea of truth. However, our understanding of things is flawed and socially mediated in a way that we cannot fully access the truth. Every opinion is a perspective that is to a greater or lesser extent close to the truth, but not the perfect truth.
6. There is no, and there can be no, infallible human being
“…the infallible man does not exist.”
Since there are only perspectives that are more or less true (and never fully true), there can be no definitive judgment. Stoicism does not promise perfect knowledge. If there is no higher authority than reason and nature is governed by reason, then no man can possess infallibility, not even the Roman emperor himself.
This comes down to the difference between intelligence and wisdom: the truly wise man knows the limits of his intelligence.
7. Be virtuous in action, not in theory
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
The philosopher king is endorsing “virtue ethics”, the idea that good conduct emanates from good character. There are two other major ethical formulae: “consequentialist” ethics: the theory that the best actions are those with the best outcomes, and “deontological” — or duty — ethics: that virtue resides only in the act itself, not the consequences of the act.
The difference between these two is that the former would allow you to tell a “white lie” if you knew that good would come of it, the latter position would argue that all lies are intrinsically bad and you should not tell a lie regardless of the consequences.
Whereas consequentialism is guided by expected outcomes, and deontological ethics by principles, they are imperfect since they rely on our imperfect perspectives. Virtue ethics relies not on principles but on character. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus argued that if you were to live in accordance with nature, you would act appropriately; there would be no need to either guess the consequences of your actions nor learn rules to guide them.
8. You are what you think
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
If ethics lie in virtuous character, then how we conduct ourselves ultimately comes down to thought and reason.
Emotions for the Stoics are judgments and therefore cognitive. Greed, for example, is a false judgment about the intrinsic value of money or possessions. Since the way of the Stoic is to live in accordance with nature, reason must be prized above all else, since the universe is governed by the laws of reason.
9. The eternal meaning of our lives
“What we do in life ripples in eternity.”
So far we’ve learned that Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics believed that the universe is God: it is perfect, true and eternal (what is perfect must be eternal). We are a part of the universe and what we do in our lives is part of that eternity.
People often evoke the enormity of the universe to show how tiny and inconsequential our lives are: just a speck of dust. In a massive universe with a long lifespan that may be true. However, these people are discounting infinity. In an infinite universe, our thoughts and actions take on an enormous significance since they are part of an infinite chain.
10. Contemplation will give you a happy life
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”
We should not shirk the complexity of the world we live in or the complexity of ourselves. If we contemplate, we too can be free of emotional turmoil, spiritual weariness and muddled thinking.
It takes time and courage to contemplate. If we are blessed with the former, we should embrace the latter.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in another I wrote about Nietzsche’s concept of redemption which was influenced by the Stoics: