The first week of February marks the 3rd Annual Stoic Week. It is a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives. Incidentally The New York Review of Books published 3 reviews of historical accounts of Seneca and early last month, Elizabeth Colbert from The New Yorker wrote how Seneca became Roman’s philosopher-fixer, 2 rather timely reports related to stoicism. (For those unfamiliar with stoicism, Seneca was a renowned stoic Roman statesman and philosopher).
Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years. It proved especially popular among the Romans, attracting admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The works of these three authors have come down to us and have won admirers from the Renaissance through to the present day. Although the philosophy of Stoicism as a whole is complex, embracing everything from metaphysics to astronomy to grammar, the works of the three great Roman Stoics focus on practical advice and guidance for those trying to achieve well being or sense of contentment. Here are four central ideas:
Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee happiness. According to stoicsm, external things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although they do hold value and may well form part of a good life, it is the obsessive pursuit of these things that actually damages the only thing that can bring us a sense of contentment: an excellent, rational mental state.
Emotions – our emotions are the project of our judgement, of thinking that something good or bad is happening or is about to happen. Many of our emotions are based on mistaken perspectives, but because they are due to our reasoning it means they are within our control. Change the perspective and you change the emotions. Despite the popular image, the Stoics do not repress or deny their emotions; instead they simply doesn’t have them in the first place when valuation situations.
Nature – the Stoics suggest we ought to live in harmony with Nature. Part of what they mean by this is that we ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to be gained from trying to resist these larger processes except anger, frustration, and disappointment. While there are many things in the world that we can change, there are many others we cannot and we need to understand this and accept it.
Control – in the light of what we have seen, there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. Happily the one thing we do have control over is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.
In fact, a slow living lifestyle which promotes a gracious society is build on the foundation of stoicism. For readers who are interested to get an introduction to the philosophy, the University of Exeter offers a 1 week online course Stoicism in a Week: Stoic Philosophy as a Way of Life which covers topics such as developing greater self-awareness of thoughts and emotions, and making wiser choices and cultivating a more purposeful and meaningful life. For more events and talks related to stoic philosophy, visit the blog Stoicism Today
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