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Why Stoicism Continues to Matter
Stoicism is a philosophical school born in Ancient Greece and later dominant in Ancient Rome which continues to have urgent things to teach us about calm, resilience and emotional stability.
Arguably the greatest, and certainly the most prolific Stoic philosopher was the Roman author and statesman Seneca, who was born in 4BC in Spain and died in 65AD in Rome.
A lot of Seneca’s thought is known to us from the letters he wrote to his friends, usually giving them counsel at times of trouble. Seneca had a friend called Lucilius, a civil servant working in Sicily. One day Lucilius learned of a lawsuit against him which threatened to end his career and disgrace his good name. He wrote to Seneca in panic.
“You may expect that I will advise you to picture a happy outcome, and to rest in the allurements of hope,” replied the philosopher, but ‘I am going to conduct you to peace of mind through another route” – which culminated in the advice, “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.”
This is an essential Stoic tenet. We must always try to picture the worst that could happen – and then remind ourselves that the worst is survivable. The goal is not to imagine that bad things don’t unfold; it’s to see that we are far stronger than we think.
To calm Lucilius down, Seneca advised him make himself entirely at home with the idea of humiliation, poverty and ongoing unemployment – but to learn to see that these were, from the right perspective, not the end of everything.
“If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison?” asked the philosopher who had survived eight years of exile in Corsica. “Hope for that which is utterly just, and prepare yourself for that which is utterly unjust.”
Seneca gave Lucilius a tailor-made prescription to mull over in the luxury of his Sicilian home which he might have lost:
“I may become a poor man; I shall then be one among many. I may be exiled; I shall then regard myself as born in the place to which I shall be sent. They may put me in chains. What then? Am I free from bonds now? Behold this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me!”
Seneca tells us that we must grow familiar with, and hold before us at all times not just the sort of events we like to plan for, that are recorded in living memory or are common in our age group and class, but the entire range of possibilities – a longer and inevitably far less agreeable list which finds space for cataclysmic fires, sackings and deaths.
“Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
“Let us place before our eyes in its entirety the nature of man’s lot… not the kind of evil that often happens, but the very greatest evil that can possibly happen. We must reflect upon fortune fully and completely.”
Seneca bids us to accept the overall instability of human and natural affairs: what seems anchored and safe to us is, in the long-term, inevitably subject to decay and destruction. We build a house, it will one day collapse. We secure an empire, it will eventually crumble. We acquire a new set of tableware, it cannot outlast eternity. Better then to dwell regularly on the darkest outcomes.
“All of those cities, of whose magnificence and grandeur you hear today, the very traces will be blotted out by time… Not only does that which has been made with hands totter to the ground… nay, the peaks of mountains dissolve… places which once stood far from the sight of the sea are now covered by the waves. The mighty power of fires has eaten away the hills… and has levelled to the ground peaks which were once most lofty – the sailor’s solace and his beacon. The works of nature herself are harassed; hence we ought to bear with untroubled minds the destruction of cities. They stand but to fall.”
At one point, a friend of Seneca’s lost a son, and the consoling thoughts ran in a similar direction. Marcia, a lady of a senatorial family and an intimate friend of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus, was devastated by the death of her son Metilius, not yet twenty-five. She fell into a period of mourning that seemed to have no end: three years after the death, her sorrow had not abated, indeed, it was growing stronger every day. The visits of friends, the counsel of books, the passage of time, none of this brought solace to the grieving mother. So Seneca sent her an essay in which he expressed the hope that, given the length of time that had elapsed since Metilius’s death, she would forgive him for going beyond the usual condolences to deliver something darker, but perhaps more effective.
“What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break… A body weak and fragile, naked, in its natural state defenceless, dependent upon another’s help…”
To lose a son was surely the greatest grief that could befall a mother, but given the vulnerability of the human frame (could not a loose tile kill an emperor?), Metilius’s early death had its place in a merciless natural order, which daily offered examples of its handiwork:
“We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive, but, imagining that we ourselves are exempt and are travelling a less exposed path, we refuse to be taught by the mishaps of others that such are the lot of all. So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants: how they will don the toga, serve in the army, and succeed to their father’s property.”
They might end up doing such things, but how mad to love them without remembering that no one had offered us a guarantee they would grow to maturity, let alone make it to dinner-time. “No promise has been given you for this night – no, I have suggested too long a respite – no promise has been given even for this hour.”
Recognition of this should lead us not to greater panic, but to greater appreciation:
“Snatch the pleasures your children bring, let your children in turn find delight in you, and drain joy to the dregs without delay”.
If Metilius’s death had been unexpected for Marcia, it was only on the basis of a wishful assessment of probabilities.
“You say: ‘I did not think it would happen.’ Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened to many?”
Marcia perhaps knew mothers whose sons enjoyed illustrious careers in politics and the army, and it could have been from these death-less scenarios that she had shaped her expectations of motherhood. Judged against this narrow and favoured context, it was normal if her loss should seem freakish, unjust.
Seneca imagined meeting Marcia before her birth and inviting her on a tour of the troubled earth, so that she could weigh up the terms of life, then choose whether or not to accept them. On the one hand, Marcia would see a planet of awe-inspiring beauty, where celestial bodies whirled ceaselessly above the clouds, where countless stars gleamed in the heavens, where boundless fertile plains stretched as far as the eye could see, where mountains rose to snow-capped summits and brooks flowed gently through lush meadows. It was a world of innumerable cities, of great lakes, valleys, and corn-fields, of precious stones, jewels and gold. But it was also a violent, miserable world. The very waters of the oceans could suddenly boil into a mighty rage, sea monsters that surpassed in size all creatures of the land scoured the deep, terrifying sailors by drinking in the waters of the sea and blowing them out again with force enough to sink a ship. It was a world visited by a thousand plagues, diseases, robberies, poisons and accidents, one we might be able to leave only after enduring immense cruelty and anxiety.
Would Marcia choose to step into such a world? Her existence suggested her answer. In which case, would she not have to bow to the terms of earthly life in all its extremes, from the calm meadows to the hideous water-blowing sea-monsters?
Picturing how vulnerable we all are to disaster bids us to redraw the limits to our sense of what is ours: we should no longer imagine that our farmhouses, vineyards, children, spouses and businesses are under our jurisdiction, if we feel anxious at the thought of their loss, we need only remind ourselves that they do not, and have never truly belonged to us. On acquiring a new house, lover or goblet, we must accept – from the very first date or the signature of contract – that, despite appearances, we are renting, not buying. And the owner is temperamental.
“No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss… Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful… No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed. Reflect that a highwayman or an enemy may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every slave wields the power of life and death over you.”
Seneca was – along the way – keen to assuage the anger generated by the sense we have been insulted, the hot prickly anger we feel at the thought that the man in the gymnasium was giggling at the size of our forearms, that a friend at a dinner party was snide about our business or that the attendant at the gladiator’s show gave us terrible seats so we couldn’t see the Christian being eaten alive by a lion.
Seneca’s consolation followed a similar pattern as his thoughts on natural disasters: just as we should make ourselves at home with the full range of horrors that may befall us, so we should face up to everything about us which may provide others with amusement. Features of our character and appearance will inevitable be ridiculed behind our back so we should be wary of being initiated into these faults through the cruelty of others. Better to meditate on them oneself so that there will be nothing others can find to say about us of which we are not fully aware already.
“Some jest at the baldness of my head, the weakness of my eyes, the thinness of my legs, my build. By why is it an insult to be told what is self-evident?”
The more fragile our sense of self-worth, the more grounds we imagine there are for us to meet with ill-treatment, therefore, the more rapidly we form the impression that we have, in fact, been insulted. Seneca tells the story of Gnaeus Piso, consul and governor of Syria, who ordered the execution of a soldier because he had returned from leave without his companion. Piso judged that the soldier’s inability to produce this companion was a sure sign that he had killed him and, therefore, ordered him to suffer the consequences. The condemned man protested and begged for time for an enquiry to be made, but Piso refused and the soldier was carted off for execution. And yet, just as the centurion was ordering his subordinate to slice off the man’s head, the missing companion appeared. Relieved, the centurion called off the execution at once, and there was rejoicing among the troops. Piso took the news less well. Interpreting the rejoicing as insolence and an affront to his authority, he ordered both men to be executed; the soldier who had not committed murder and the one who had not been murdered. For good measure, he also ordered the execution of the centurion.
If only he could have had the confidence to trust that the rejoicing of the troops was no sign that they had worked out what a daft commander he was. They were just happy to see the execution called off.
If only Piso had followed the example of the philosopher, who at the end of a letter to Lucilius reported:
“I shall tell you what I liked today in the writings of Hecato; it is these words: ‘What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.’ That was indeed a great benefit; …you may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.”
When we are furious, paranoid, weak-willed or sad, Stoicism is on hand – as it has been for 2,000 years, to nurse us with wisdom and friendship.