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Stoicism: Heroic Acceptance

William Lewis tells us the Graeco-Roman way to keep a stiff upper lip.

Jesus taught that we cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven unless we become like little children; but four centuries earlier Aristotle said we should feel sorry for children because they are incapable of true happiness, which consists of wisdom and virtue. Aristotle’s austere notion of happiness will sound odd to many people but it was accepted by the Stoics, who thought of man as custodian of a divine spark which he could fan into flame with good deeds and douse with evil ones. Here are some words of one well-known Stoic, the slave Epictetus (c. 55-135AD):

“You are a distinct portion of the essence of God, and contain a certain part of him in yourself. Why, then, are you so ignorant of your noble birth? Why do not you consider whence you came? Why do not you remember, when you are eating, who you are who eat, and whom you feed? When you are in the company of women, when you are conversing, when you are exercising, when you are disputing, do not you know that it is a god you feed, a god you exercise? You carry a god about with you, wretch, and know nothing of it. Do you suppose I mean some god without you, of gold or silver? It is within yourself you carry him, and profane him, without being sensible of it, by impure thoughts and unclean actions. If even the image of God were present, you would not dare to act as you do; and when God himself is within you, and hears and sees all, are not you ashamed to think and act thus, insensible of your own nature and hateful to God?”

The Stoic regarded man as part of a larger whole to which he must willingly surrender himself, just as animals and plants know their place in the scheme of things and comply effortlessly with the natural law. But whereas animals are urged to right actions or appropriate behaviour by their instincts, man must search his heart and mind for the promptings of justice and reason. Moreover, he must clearly distinguish those things which are within his power to change (for example his use of leisure and choice of friends) from things which are outside his control, such as his age, gender, race, and bodily and mental endowments. A Stoic accepts without complaint the hand of cards dealt to him, because he thinks of such natural providence as a perfect expression of the divine will. He would agree with Spinoza that true freedom means accepting and loving the inevitable, which means the nature of reality as it is.

To the Stoic there is no better place than here, no better time than now, no better circumstance or personal condition than this(the prevailing one) in which to guard the divinity within us. They define a context ordained by God – here, now, this. So the Stoic does not readily yield to the pull of his desires, is slow to run away from disagreeable things, enjoys his pleasures calmly and endures pain without complaint. At all times he is content to do his duty unnoticed, seeking no reward yet without requiring his fellows to do likewise. In Hamlet’s words he is “a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards has ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those whose blood and judgement are so well commingled that they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please.”

Stoicism often produced great nobility of character in its adepts. Their astonishing heroism and selflessness are set out in the writings of Plutarch and Cicero; read them and be humble. But there is frequently a coldness and harshness here which we would not wish to emulate, a humourless puritanism which unwittingly seeks to be superhuman, but all too often is downright inhuman. As Sir Toby Belch put it in Twelfth Night, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Some Stoics feared that their emotions (desire, hope, regret etc) would lead them astray, and so they tried to suppress them, cultivating an apathy which to our minds has more of death than life in it, fostering indifference to the sufferings of others. If my misfortunes are nothing to me and I urge you to ignore them, why should I worry about your misfortunes? If I can cope, so can you. But then, some zealots always take a good idea one step too far. Uncompromising versions of Stoicism were unrealistic about human nature and its frailties, fostering make-believe and hypocrisy. How gladly then did the unconverted turn for guidance and company to the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, to the Epicureans, with their relaxed cultivation of friendship and pleasure; the Epicureans’ refusal to bother God or be bothered by Him is a revulsion many share today. Most of us are children of the Enlightenment, wanting to try everything once, sow a few wild oats perhaps and lead interesting, exciting, fun-filled lives. The wealth of the human spirit is found in its enjoyments, Matthew Arnold tells us. We may admire saints and moralists, even feel chastened bytheir example, but we don’t invite them to our parties.

So what of Stoic principles? Dr Johnson’s via media may help us here. His conception of a balanced life requires a man to be a serious and devout scholar in his study, and a lively and amusing companion when at large in society, getting the best of both worlds. By the same token I suppose we could aim to be stoics in our hours of solitude and epicurean in company. Most of us know someone who succeeds in being an amusing, nonjudgemental companion without detriment to his fine character or straining his conscience. Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’ also might soften the hard edges of Stoicism: there is nothing wrong in wanting pleasure and shunning pain, but in wanting and shunning too much, to the dereliction of our duty. Keep things in proportion.

Certainly the Stoic’s insistence on the unconditional character of true happiness is bracing. It offered some sort of consolation to men like the slave Epictetus, who owned nothing; and at the other end of the social spectrum it helped men who could indulge every whim (such as the emperor Marcus Aurelius and the wealthy Seneca) to avoid being possessed by their possessions. There will always be a role for Stoicism in supplying a discipline – soldier on! – and in fostering a self-forgetting detachment in a ‘timeless now’. This is the soil in which good character, true spirituality and mystical contemplation are rooted. I imagine Stoicism of some sort is to be found in most advanced forms of natural religion, lending weight to moral options and conferring dignity and purpose on even the drabbest of human lives, and welcomed by those many seekers after God who will not bind their faith to any obligatory doctrine or uncritical belief in supposed ‘historical facts’. As to revealed religion, ecumenicists may find Stoicism a useful basis for a moral consensus or unifying thread, ‘the light which enlightens every man’.

And indeed Stoicism, like much of the ancient wisdom, eventually found a place in Christian thought and was sometimes softened by its baptism. Duty, the lodestone for Stoics, as it was later for Kant, was transmuted into loving-kindness – though the permanent tension between the two ideals has gradually tainted the word charity. Mere duty so easily becomes a series of grim chores which make the heart grow cold, as it seems to have done to those misguided nuns whose dedication led them to humiliate destitute ‘magdalenes’ (unmarried mothers); whereas loving-kindness is both the perfection of the will and at its best an endearing human trait. Yes, Stoicism is fine up to a point, but like Christian virtue, it needs to be sweetened with humility, humanity and humour.

Finally, a few words from Marcus Aurelius, the saintly Roman emperor:

“...there remains that which is peculiar to the good man, to be pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him; and not to defile the divinity which is planted in his breast, nor disturb it by a crowd of images, but to preserve it tranquil, following it obediently as a god, neither saying anything contrary to the truth, nor doing anything contrary to justice. And if all men refuse to believe that he lives a simple, modest, and contented life, he is neither angry with any of them, nor does he deviate from the way which leads to the end of life, to which a man ought to come pure, tranquil, ready to depart, and without any compulsion perfectly reconciled to his lot.”

© William Lewis 2006

Bill Lewis is a 75 year old retired civil servant who spends his time teaching and fell-walking in Northumberland.

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