If ever there was a time for figuring out what our philosophy of life is, it is now, when our job and household routines are stood on their heads and the economy is in free fall, all because a tiny little virus is rampaging through the world, leaving people deathly ill and many dying, all around us.
My Socrates Café is still going during the pandemic – albeit on Zoom – everyone as eager as ever to engage in spirited discussions about “what is the truth,” “how do we form values in a free thinking society,” “are there practical ways to become open-minded,” “are being alone and lonely the same or different,” and “where does the universe end – what is it, anyway?”
Sometime in the dark of our nights, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about? Is Covid 19 a random happening? Is everything on earth mere chaos, whirling about every which way without rhyme or reason?”
It is a good time to get out pencil and paper to review our personal philosophies.
I have been thinking a lot about Stoicism lately. I once devised a questionnaire for both my high school and college reunions where I asked them to make a list of the worst things that had happened in their lives and then to write down the quality of character that got them through. We had survived divorces, deaths of husbands, suicides of children, cancer, and the general mayhem of life by calling up a quality we called “grit” or “stiff upper lip” or “keeping going.”
I knew my classmates well enough to realize they were not just shoving aside the bad things that happened to them. They survived through a quality much deeper than denial: an inner balance or equanimity they described as facing up to their tragedy, “seeing things through to the end,” and then ” bouncing back.” Equanimity is a stalwart presence of mind, an inner strength that enables us to endure all things while staying heart-whole.
You don’t get that way from taking your world as a random collection of atoms bouncing around chaotically: my classmates were living by an idea about how human beings should behave that, in the world of philosophy, is best expressed in Stoicism. My father had been a student of philosophy at Columbia University, and one of the books he kept with him was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. When my seas of anxiety rose and stormed during my thirties I bought a copy, and became very fond of that beleaguered Emperor, jotting down his rules of life while surrounded by wild tribes of Germans at his outpost on the Danube, his empire ravaged by plague, flood and constant war.
Marcus, who became Roman Emperor in 161CE, was a Stoic This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control. Looking at these realities squarely, you develop an inner balance and the apply your chosen values to a course of action.
Stoic philosophers were quite scientific, using their reason to study nature, which included human nature. Like America’s founders, they sought truths that were reasonable and “self-evident” and then worked out principles to apply them. In an age when personal satisfaction or “self-actualization” is a paramount value, it is hard to grasp that both classical and enlightenment thinkers took “the good” as a social rather than an individual aspiration. Or, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, “The mind of the universe is social.”
“Begin each day “by telling yourself today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness….”
How did he figure that out? It is really very simple – try it yourself:
1. What do I think is good?
2. What do I think is evil?
I am serious: in a few short sentences or single words, write down your answers.
“Are you distracted by outward cares,” asks Marcus. “Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, say, their whole thought, is focused.”
Years ago, I was flying back from a carefree vacation in England to my frantic life as a commuting professor, gazing down upon icebergs sparkling on the Greenland sea, with my tattered copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in my hands. In response to his request to “make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals,” I worked out my (mid-career) principles on the facing page. For my “Good,” I took “enlightenment,” the reasoned perception of truth; in that literature resounded with “great clarity” I would use it to lead my students to the service of truth in their lives. I took “oligarchies” as my Evil, and so determined to do my best for “the greatest good of the greatest number.” I resolved to quell the inner turmoil roiled up by academic nastiness by “not taking things personally,” and I would follow Marcus’ advice to withdraw into “the little field of self” when things felt overwhelming.
Your turn: on the basis of your list of What is Good and What is Evil, write down some principles by which you intend to achieve Stoic equanimity in these perilous times.
How did it come out? Would you like to share your findings in the comment section? For further ideas about how to apply Stoicism to your life, you might want to check out www.dailystoic.com.
Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless? You might consider Cynicism, a classical philosophy based on the idea that people only pursue their self-interest and that adhering to social norms is ridiculous. Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the word derives from “Dog” and you will get to lead a relaxing dog’s life doing your own thing – like chasing your tail and lying around in the sun all day long.