On Stoicism

On Stoicism

Laura K. Secor

Image by Jennifer Beebe from Pixabay

Hello my friends,

When it came time, as the year was ending, to discuss New Year’s plans and resolutions, my husband announced that he was going to commit to studying Stoicism for the next year.  He had already collected The Daily Stoic, The Practicing Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics. I was torn between my usual enthusiasm to share a new adventure with my honey, and my reluctance to delve into an ancient tradition with such a bad rap.  I don’t know if you’ve heard what I’ve heard, but my impression of Stoicism was that it’s about living like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, all mind and no heart.

I decided that if it was so appealing to Dan, I had to at least check it out.  After two weeks of reading and exploring through meditation and journal, I’ve come to the conclusion that the truest expression of Stoicism is the Serenity prayer.  You know the one. It goes:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Now wait – you say with a certain outrage – that’s not stoic, that’s a Christian prayer!  You are correct, but the sentiment has been kicking around our planet for a very long time.  One of the three founding fathers of Stoicism, Epictetus wrote:

 “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions-in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.

Do you see, as I do, a correspondence between Epictetus’ sentiment and the Serenity prayer?  It helped me to bridge the gap in my ignorance of Stoicism and convinced me to share Dan’s year of exploration.  After all, we already have the books!

Next month I will talk about the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, and (to pique your interest) an insight I had that pulled them both into a new understanding.  But for the remainder of this month’s Nugget, I want to give you some quotes from our three founding fathers (Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) and a few “affiliates” so that you can taste the flavor of the philosophy and mull it over for a few weeks.

The following quotes are drawn from Farnsworth, Ward. The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual. Stoicism starts with the idea that our experience of the world – our reactions, fears, desires, all of it – is not produced by the world. It is produced by what the Stoics call our judgments, or opinions.

We start with Seneca:

Everything depends on opinion. Ambition, luxury, greed, all look back to opinion; it is according to opinion that we suffer. Each man is as wretched as he has convinced himself he is. (Seneca, Epistles 78.13)

Cicero’s expression of the Stoic thesis:

Grief, then, is a recent opinion of some present evil, about which it seems right to feel downcast and in low spirits. Joy is a recent opinion of a present good, in response to which it seems right to be elated. Fear is an opinion of an impending evil that seems unbearable. Lust is an opinion about a good to come – that it would be better if it were already here. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.7)

How Epictetus put it:

For what is weeping and wailing? Opinion. What is misfortune? Opinion. What is discord, disagreement, blame, accusation, impiety, foolishness? All these are opinions and nothing else. (Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.18-19)

Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things. For example, death is nothing terrible; for if it were, it would have seemed so even to Socrates. Rather, the opinion that death is terrible – that is the terrible thing. So when we are impeded or upset or aggrieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves – that is, our opinions. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 5)

Fifteen centuries later, Montaigne was revisiting old territory:

Things in themselves may have their own weights, measures, and qualities; but once we take them into us, the soul forms them as she sees fit. Death is terrifying to Cicero, coveted by Cato, indifferent to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty, and their opposites all strip themselves bare when they enter us and receive a new robe, of a new color, from the soul…. Let us therefore find no excuses in the external qualities of things; what we make of them is up to us. Our good or bad depends on no one but ourselves. (Montaigne, On Democritus and Heraclitus, 1580)

And further:

Comfort and poverty depend on the opinions we have of them; and riches, glory, and health have only as much beauty and pleasure as is attributed to them by their possessor. Each of us is as well or badly off as we believe. The happy are those who think they are, not those who are thought to be so by others; and in this way alone, belief makes itself real and true. (Montaigne, That the Taste of Good and Evil Things Depends in Large Part on the Opinion We Have of Them, 1580)

Or as Montaigne said elsewhere in the same essay:

“That which gives value to a diamond is our having purchased it; to virtue, the difficulty of it; to devotion, our suffering; and to medicine, its bitterness.” 

Compare:

HAMLET: … “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2, 2)  

Or Schopenhauer:

“It is not what things are objectively and in themselves, but what they are for us, in our way of looking at them, that makes us happy or the reverse.” (Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, 1851)

Until next time, I invite you to question whether you feel any correspondence with these ideas.