Part 2, bear with me here as this will take a little longer to read.
Here we go, part two of this dig in hopes of finding a way to live a sustainably balanced and healthy life. In the previous article, we looked at how our world looks like today. There seems to be an overwhelming problem with poverty/homelessness, addictions/suicides, political upheaval, refugee crisis, terrorism/Neo-Nazism and climate change. No matter what continent we look at, there are some forms of serious issues being addressed.
One thing that seems to be a common denominator is a lack of strong ethical standards. It seems corruption has seeped into the fabric of society. The trend seems to lean to, “take care of yourself and your interests and turn a blind eye to everything else”. Personal political interest & control seems to play a role with our politicians, many owners and CEO’s of large companies pocket their profits resulting in the rich getting richer. The cost of living keeps rising, the middle class is shrinking and the poor are getting poorer.
So you ask, what can be done? I don’t believe it’s an easy answer, but I do believe if we keep going down a road of “take, take, take, me, me, me” we are not going to get much further down this road.
I have dug up something that may just be an answer to our dilemma. We need to do a little time travel back to Ancient Greece in the times between 800 BCE – 400 BCE, 2,818 – 2,418 years ago.
This is the time when Democracy was created, and the first Olympic Games took place. The time of Alexander the Great, Pythagoras and Aristotle, both mathematicians and philosophers, Euclid the inventor of Geometry, the philosophers Socrates and Plato; all these famous and successful men roamed the lands at this time.
There were many wars during this period; the end of the Bronze Age overlapped, society was changing and settling into a more agrarian settled lifestyle rather than nomadic. Maybe because of the transition, wars and upheavals philosophers sought alternative belief systems. It was during this time period that Epictetus and Stoicism: “The wisdom of the slave philosopher” came into being.
There is much written on Stoicism and it’s impossible to go into any kind of detail here, but let me try and paint you a glimpse of how I see this working.
“Ancient Stoicism, a philosophy of progress; it’s built on each individual trying to make the best of themselves according to their own personalities, abilities and their real-life situations”. (1)
It’s structured on four Cardinal Virtues: “Prudence, Justice, Courage and Moderation”. Let’s break this down a bit by definitions.
- Prudence: The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness, the knowledge of what is good and bad, the knowledge that produces happiness, the nature by which we judge what is to be done and what is not”. (2)
- Justice: The harmony of the soul with itself and the discipline of the parts of the soul with respect and concern to each other. (2)
Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges (Wikipedia). I added this as I feel it’s part of the whole.
- Courage: “The virtue of courage allows us to endure fear” (2) The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger and pain (3)
- Moderation: The virtue of moderation to renounce unhealthy desires” (2). The process of eliminating or lessening extremes. (Wikipedia)
So this gives us an idea of what Stoicism is built on – the four cardinal virtues. Now I’m going to use examples and quotes from an article written by Donald Robertson “How to think like a Roman Emperor” (2), referring to the famous Marcus Aurelius who was a strong Stoic follower.
Donald incorporates the virtues into 3 categories. I’m going to change this around a little to try and explain it in a more flowing manner.
1a. “Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension”.
So what does this mean? Stoics claim there are things we are totally in control of, and things that we aren’t. We are responsible for our mental and moral ethics and actions. These things we have control over; we are responsible for knowing what is good and what is not, and by and large we’re responsible for our happiness or unhappiness. I’ve added “by and large” as I’m not sure where psychotic illness fits into this.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts”. Marcus Aurelius
1b. “Living at one with external events, by welcoming the fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more”.
Epictetus believed it’s a choice: “either we can live the life of focusing on material goods and external values such as social status and losing touch of virtuous ways, or we can work towards a life where we focus our attention on a virtuous lifestyle”, bring order and control within. (4)
“You must be one person, either good or bad. You must either work on your ruling principle or work on externals, practice the art either of what is inside or of what is outside”. (Epictetus)
Wow, that sounds challenging!
“Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.” Marcus Aurelius
2. Living as one, or harmoniously with other people, even our “enemies”, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system”.
Again I quote from Donald Roberstons paper “imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of common circles. You’re in the centre, your family and friends are in the next rings, and then comes your countrymen and the rest of humanity. Now imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to your centre, treating them increasingly more and more as if you identified with them, drawing them further into your household”. (4)
“We should view other people as though we’re the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another”. “Marcus Aurelius
3. The Stoics were Pantheisms; what does that mean? “Pantheism is the view that the world is either identical to God, or an expression of God’s nature” (5). The Stoic philosophy being,” believing the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life”(4). I believe this realization is becoming more and more acceptable in today’s modern world. We are becoming more in-tune with nature and realizing that we’re part and parcel of the whole, not a separate entity and need to respect nature and find sustainable and alternative methods rather than abuse her.
“What injures the hive, injures the bee.” We’re all interconnected and we all have the same nature.” (Marcus Aurelius)
“The Stoic world is a fully determinate structure – a closed system of cause and effect where nothing is simply by chance or random – every external situation that we face could not be otherwise than it is; “This is what it was bound to be for me at this time and place, breaking my leg, getting offered this job” etc. Fate is not assigned to me independently of who I am and what I do. We co-determine our fate by the decisions that we make and by the responses we give to our circumstances”(1). I believe this coincides with today’s saying “there are no coincidences or accidents”. “Our past, up to the last second is settled; but our future will depend critically on how we decide to act – the one thing that is fully and uniquely up to us, and that God/Nature has delegated to us as individual persons within the whole. (1). Our responsibility is ourselves.
So what I’m understanding is, Stoicism works as a unit, based on the four cardinal virtues requiring us to live our life based on them. When we choose not to we disconnect from the virtues and become separate. Instead, we fill the void with struggle, frustration, judgement, anger, greed and criticisms resulting in loneliness, mental illness, addictions, terrorism/neo-Nazism increased poverty and a topsy-turvy climate.
“No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.” Seneca
If the Universal Consciousness hypothesis is correct, what I’m understanding is: with the 7 billion + population now living on Earth, this must mean that at least more than 1/2 of the population lives in a world lacking ethical driven virtues to some degree. Does this mean over 1/2 of our population are guilty of this? I guess so. I admit, to a degree, I am guilty. So in order to sail our ” worldly community ship” into calmer, healthier and stable waters for all of life, it looks like we all need to take ethical responsibility of ourselves in order to change course and tack our ship to sail with the wind and not against the wind. It seems humanity is the captain of this incredibly complex living vessel and all decisions we make as individuals result in the course we sail. If this is humanities role then we have one hell of a responsibility individually and as a team.
“Whatever one of us blames in another, each one will find in his own heart.” Seneca
I find this fascinating; It’s not all new information to me. I grew up living with virtues and understanding what was good and bad, but I am wondering if living by virtues is a disappearing art in today’s world. I also wonder if in times of struggle we go within to find solutions, but in times of prosperity, we get caught up in all the external glory and wealth and chose not to spend the required time to meditate and contemplate and live by the rights and wrongs.
Coming back to the present day and looking at it through the eyes of a stoic, it looks like there is no reason why this free democratic, capitalistic ship can’t plough through waters successfully. No matter what form of democracy a country follows, our democratic representatives who oversee our countries are the captains of our countries vessel. Owners and CEO’s of large corporations, who pull a lot of power, and all other businesses are the captains of the economic vessel. We the people are the crew of these ships and without us, these ships cannot move. So if we all take responsibility for ourselves and make decisions based on the roles we play based on the good for the whole, we should be able to prevent our ship capsizing and steer her on a successful journey for all. So my understanding then is, this philosophy rests on us individuals and our healthy mindset governing our decisions and actions, which in turn supports and contributes to the bigger picture.
I’m encouraged through all this digging. This all makes a lot of sense and I’ve also learnt there is a rebirth of this philosophy today; it being tagged as “a philosophy of our time”. Plus as I mentioned earlier, its very familiar with the spiritual movement of today which teaches us that we are one with all life/nature and God/The Source; all life works together and we all have our purpose. We are not lonely islands living a life just for ourselves, we are all interconnected and our consequences affect the universal consciousness.
“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” Marcus Aurelius
I close with another famous quote, which I have adopted for its wisdom, by another famous Ancient Greek “Aesop’s the slave”.
UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL (Aesop)
*I would love you to be a part of the community by offering your thoughts, suggestions or questions in the comment box below. This is my interpretation of how I see the world today and my understanding of the philosophy of Stoicism. Sharing ideas and thoughts is what this is all about to help us figure things out. It seems this is all about teamwork!
Thanks for reading.
Resources that may interest you:
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
Modern Stoicism: https://modernstoicism.com/
Epictetus and Stoicism: The Wisdom of the Slave Philosopher: https://academyofideas.com/2018/06/epictetus-stoicism-wisdom-of-the-slave-philosopher/