Stoicism is a Hellenistic philosophy that extols the divorce of destructive emotions from judgment, a metaphysical determinism in the sense that one cannot control external events but is able to control their reactions to them, and a concept of divinity that essentially equated it to a type of cosmopolitan wisdom and rationality shared by mankind. The most famous Stoic writers include the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, and Seneca the Younger – Meditations is an anthology of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, never intended for publication, on his ideas of Stoic philosophy, while Letters from a Stoic is a collection of letters written by Seneca to Lucilius of Sicily containing insights on Stoicism and moral character. The ideas presented in these texts are remarkably timeless, and have a high degree of applicability to contemporary situations. Interestingly, there are many parallels between Stoic philosophy, Buddhism, and the practice of mindfulness meditation – a peculiar example of convergent evolution in thought.
My personal interest in Stoicism are its ideas on ethical philosophy and their concept of apatheia – the elimination of emotional or egotistical reaction to uncontrollable, external events – being the ideal moral state. The excerpts chosen below reflect that emphasis.
Excerpts from Meditations
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”
“It is not the actions of others which trouble us (for those actions are controlled by their governing part), but rather it is our own judgments. Therefore remove those judgments and resolve to let go of your anger, and it will already be gone. How do you let go? By realizing that such actions are not shameful to you.”
“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.
“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.”
The overarching theme here is external and internal suffering are in fact, orthogonal events. Or, more accurately, there is no such thing as external suffering – there are only external events, which are out of our control, and internal suffering in response to those events, which we have control over by virtue of being rational beings. By recognizing this reality, it is possible to suppress internal suffering when something we are subjected to something we perceive as negative. Stated another way, external events are neither bad nor good – only our own internal reactions have any intrinsic quality to them.
A related concept is the idea that there two categories of internal reactions – 1) a percept of emotional suffering, and 2) a practical, tangible action in response to the triggering event. For example, in response to an event such as an upcoming project deadline, these reactions would be 1) the feeling of stress, and 2) the action of working on the project to make the deadline. In this situation, most people respond in both ways; they will complete the work and likely feel stressed at the same time. What is ideal though, is to recognize that only one of these things is necessary – simply perform the required task without invoking the negative emotion of stress.
Excerpts from Letters from a Stoic
“Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”
“‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? So—to the best of your ability—demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the first part of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.”
“A physician is not angry at the intemperance of a mad patient; nor does he take it ill to be railed at by a man in a fever. Just so should a wise man treat all mankind, as a physician does his patient; and looking upon them only as sick and extravagant.”
“And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I speak of his being ‘able’ to do this, what I am saying in fact amounts to this: he bears the loss of a friend with equanimity.“
“When a mind is impressionable and had none too firm a hold on what is right, it must be rescued from the crowd: it is so easy for it to go over to the majority. […] A single example of extravagance or greed does a lot of harm – an intimate who leads a pampered life gradually makes one soft and flabby; a wealthy neighbor provokes cravings in one; a companion with a malicious nature tends to rub off some of his rust even on someone of an innocent and open-hearted nature – what then do you imagine the effect on a person’s character is when the assault comes from the world at large? You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of many because they are unlike you. Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving.
In the first excerpt concerning the differences between humans and wild animals, Seneca invokes an important concept of Buddhist philosophy – the idea that all things are transient, and that the best practice consists of what some describe as “living in the present” or “being in the moment”. What this implies is that loss (a word that can be interpreted in many different ways) is not inherently bad, but rather a natural event that is universal and unavoidable – therefore, it serves no rational purpose to have an emotional response towards it. This is related to the discussion of apatheia – there is no purpose in feeling anxiety regarding a future event if we have no control over it – and if we do have control over it, then we simply exert our control without eliciting an emotional response. Meditation instructor James Baraz explains this more clearly than I can: “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” Following these principles is what it means to live in the present or the moment.
The remaining excerpts consist of commentary on the virtues of introspection and introversion. It is perhaps misanthropy, but a sort of detached misanthropy that is not characterized by hatred. No explanation is needed for the final quote, but to give some context, there is a preceding discussion in the letter regarding Roman plebeians who spectate gladiatorial games en masse despite their barbarianism (one can imagine any number of analogous examples in a modern context).