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Stoicism and its Contents: Why this philosophical discipline still matters

Over the years, especially in times of turmoil, countless people have found comfort in the lessons and lives of the Stoics. But, as Sellars emphasises, the real benefit arises only if we incorporate these ideas into our daily lives.

It was a time of plague, unrest, and hostile invasions. No wonder the philosophy known as Stoicism – with a capital S – was such a soothing balm to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in A.D. 180 during a campaign to push back raiding Germanic tribes.

Some have speculated that the cause of the emperor’s death was the plague itself. The epidemic, which could have been smallpox, probably originated in China. It was spread along the Silk Road by traders,and then further afield by Roman legions returning from Asia Minor.

All these centuries later, Marcus Aurelius’s private notebook, known to us as The Meditations, continues to inspire and console. There have been several translations and, of late, many commentaries on and guides to Stoicism.

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In William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, for example, there’s an outline of present-day, practical applications of Stoicism, and in Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic, there’s a similar exposition of how this ancient art of living can help us flourish in modern times.

Two recent books continue this tradition: Donald J. Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and John Sellars’s Lessons in Stoicism. Both authors are among those whom one could call new Stoics, lecturing, writing and conducting courses on the philosophical discipline and its efficacy.

The title of Robertson’s book is accurate, though audacious. After all, Marcus Aurelius, by many accounts, was quite unlike most of the bloodthirsty despots who ruled Rome. Robertson takes us through stages of the emperor’s life, from coming under Hadrian’s wing to donning the imperial robes and beyond. At each step, he outlines how the cardinal virtues of Stoicism -- wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance -- shaped the emperor’s outlook, and how they can change ours.

Aurelius, as Robertson reminds us, was more of a follower than an originator of Stoic thought. The school was founded by Zeno of Citium, who taught in a public building overlooking an Athenian agora known as the StoaPoikile, or “painted porch”. This is where Zeno paced up and down as he discoursed. In time, his students called themselves Stoics, after the stoa, or porch.

Stoicism’s love of reason, resilience, and view of nature as an organising principle found a ready audience among the Romans, and it was embraced and extended by those such as Seneca, tutor to Nero; Epictetus, a slave who gained freedom and set up a philosophical school; and, of course, Marcus Aurelius. Other such as Scipio Africanus, the celebrated Roman general who destroyed Carthage, were also students of Stoicism.

After all, compared to many other schools, Stoicism was intensely practical, a way of life as much as a way of thought. In the swings of fortune that characterised the lives of many in the Roman Empire, it was a comfort, as Epictetus proclaimed, “to make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.”

Robertson succinctly outlines Stoicism’s key principles: “Humans excel when they think clearly and reason well about their lives, which amounts to living wisely.” Wisdom thus “requires understanding the difference between good, bad, and indifferent things.”

He ties these precepts to modern practices that seek to achieve the same goal, chiefly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This, however, means, taking concepts such as cognitive dissonance and “decatastrophizing” and occasionally shoehorning them into Stoic precepts.

In Sellars’s Lessons in Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius shares the stage with Seneca and Epictetus. Sellarsfirst elaborates on the wisdom of Epictetus: “all we really have control over are our judgements, along with things that derive from our judgements.” He goes on to explain Seneca’s way of handling emotions, which is to first use reason to understand their arising. And he clarifies Marcus Aurelius’ calm attitude in the face of events that are either unexpected or inevitable.

In general, Sellars’s wise summing-up advice is: “Whether Nature is ruled by a providential deity, a cybernetic feedback system or blind fate, or is simply the chance product of atomic interactions, the response from us should always be the same: accept what happens and act in response as best we can.”

Neither Sellars or Robertson mention the remarkable similarities between some tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism. When Robertson writes about the advantages of separating our value judgments from external events, or about how viewing things as changeable can help weaken our emotional ties to them, one can’t help but be reminded of the Buddha’s words.

Over the years, especially in times of turmoil, countless people have found comfort in the lessons and lives of the Stoics. But, as Sellars emphasises, the real benefit arises only if we incorporate these ideas into our daily lives.This, as he puts it,“is where the really hard work begins.”

One can almost hear Marcus Aurelius whispering to himself: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
First Published on Jun 27, 2020 09:30 am
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