Modern Stoicism has become an industry. And one more mega-industry.
For consumers looking for wisdom on how to live the good life – and there is plenty – there are daily summaries of Stoic quotes, books and websites filled with Stoic wisdom to start your day, podcasts. , broadcasts, crash courses online. and more.
In some ways, stoicism is well suited to a program of self-improvement. It has always been a kind of sports training for the soul. Founded in the third century BCE by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium and today mainly associated with Roman practitioners like Emperor Marcus Aurelius and statesman Seneca, Stoicism emphasizes ethics, virtue and the realization of that elusive good life.
But today, stoicism is not so much a philosophy as it is a collection of life hacks for overcoming anxiety, meditations to curb anger, exercises to find stillness and calm – not by ” oms ”or silent retreats, but by a discourse which chastises a spirit: the pain is not due to the thing itself”, says Marc Aurèle, “but to your estimation of it. In this state of mind, the impact of the outside world may fade as the inner self becomes a sanctuary. The focus is reduced to this me – me, isolated from the social structures that support or demean me.
It may be a strand of Stoicism, hyperbolized in the highly quoted epigrams of the Greek Stoic Epictetus, but it is by no means the whole of it. The me-centered view lacks the emphasis the old Stoicism placed on our flourishing as a social, locally and globally connected self.
The early Stoics taught that we are citizens of the world connected to all of humanity through our reason. Marc Aurèle paints a graphic image in his “Meditations”. He took his notes in the calm of nightfall after a day of battle during the Germanic campaigns. The detritus of the battlefield is in his mind: imagine a hand and a head parted from the rest of the body. This is what a person does to themselves when they cut themselves off from the world. We cannot be “at home in the world,” a Stoic slogan, if good is reduced to self-interest, or if courage is defined as self-reliance.
As self-focused pop stoicism has flourished in the marketplace, in Georgetown classrooms where I teach Old Stoicism to graduates and undergraduates, it is the promise of this connected self and the potential to contribute to the common good that motivate students. This semester, immersed in a year of loss, isolation and racial calculus, we grappled with difficult philosophical texts and discussed the crude fact that our campus was funded, in part, by the Jesuit sale of 272 slaves in 1838. When we read Epictetus, a student told the class, “I hope this is not a philosophy about me and my self-interest. Because if it does, it’s really not ethical. He couldn’t have said it better.
We discovered the Stoics like Hierocles, a lesser-known second-century Roman philosopher, who came up with a concrete exercise to build the kind of connectivity Marcus Aurelius sought: draw concentric circles around a point – the self – then extend them. circles from friends and relatives of all of mankind. Then reduce the space between the circles, writes Hierocles, “zealously transferring” those from the outside to the inside. It is the job of a good person, he said, to take this initiative, to make this moral commitment.
What is seldom noticed when stoicism is presented as self-help is that the very tools that can buffer between the outside world and our vision are the same that can help us change that outside world for the better. . We see through personal biases that we don’t even know we have. The Stoics suggest techniques for slowing down impulsive thinking that can cloud our judgment.
Seneca puts it this way: We can often insert mindfulness and willpower and watch for the “impulsive impressions” and rapid bodily responses that follow – nip them in the bud – before giving in to them irrationally. Of course, he admits, we are hard-wired by nature to respond to the threats of life; this is what it means to live “in harmony with nature”. But it also teaches that we are not always good judges in assessing these threats. Fear and anger “too often override reason”. We need to know how and when to press the pause button. We need to mobilize attention, he says, to mitigate the impact of quasi-automatic responses prone to distortions and errors.
Ultimately, it’s a life hack for not only me and my impulse control, but also for us thinking about how to build community so that fear and rage doesn’t tear us apart. The goal of daily meditation is not just my serenity. It is equanimity rooted in virtue, and virtue, for ancient Greeks and Romans, including the Stoics, still concerns how well I live as a cooperative member of a Commonwealth.
These foundational elements of Stoic ethics do not always feature at the top of the daily Stoic newsletter or bestseller list. As a teacher, I like to direct those hungry for Stoic wisdom to the ancient texts themselves. Why not subscribe to Sénèque’s letter-writing newsletter? There are 124 “Letters on Ethics,” written in his later years for a general audience. These are general tips for living well that swell with the joy of the journey shared between teacher and future student.
In “On Anger”, Seneca calls us: “Let us cultivate our humanity.” This is the enduring Stoic promise: to empower ourselves in our common humanity. It is not a question of self-help but of group assistance. If the Stoics are worth reading, it’s because they constantly urge us to rise to our potential – through reason, cooperation, and selflessness.
Nancy Sherman is the author, most recently, of “Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience., And is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University.
Now in print: “Modern ethics in 77 arguments“and”The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments», With tests of the series.
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