Nowadays if we use the word ‘stoic’ we do so informally. Perhaps it refers to someone who bears up despite hard times, or takes pride in bearing pain. At its worst it may be associated with the ethos of the public school when the cane was the primary instrument of education. And that’s a pity because Stoicism as a philosophy was formally active for several centuries, had a strong influence on the Roman Empire, and played an important part in the development of Christian moral law. Today it still has much to teach us.
If I had to sum up Stoicism briefly I would describe it as coming to terms with reality and learning to live with it. The fundamental assumption is that the whole cosmos consists of passive matter which is penetrated by divine reason. Thus nature is entirely rational because everything in it is organised for the best. We are also part of this nature and our human reason is a spark of the divine reason.
Once we have fully accepted this, our response to happenings, good or bad, will be rational since we recognise that they were inevitable – and that our feelings are not only irrelevant but they can interfere with our reason. So, if you crash your car and you are jumping up and down with rage, a passing Stoic would tell you that your anger is pointless – just accept the crash and think about your next rational step. Easier said than done – but you suspect that he’s right.
All this sounds a bit bloodless. We are in fact surrounded by our emotions and, very often, they are major agents in the choices we make. So perhaps our first step would be to recognise how they affect us and how they might be controlled so that we can use them to support our reasoning rather than distract it. An important principle is the need to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot. Your car crash is in the past so you can’t change it.
It is significant that modern authorities on cognitive behavioural therapy trace the methodology back to Stoicism. I simplify, of course, but both work through the client being helped to realise the truth of the situation (cognitive) as a necessary preliminary to constructive behavioural change. I used it routinely for marriage counselling. As Epictetus, an early Stoic, said: “Man is disturbed not by things but by the views he takes of them. But we can also trace Stoicism back to the Socratic tradition where the pursuit of truth leading us into the virtuous life was central.
The Romans were ready to welcome Stoicism. It fitted well with the ambition to bring civilisation under the rule of law enforced by the Empire, and its manliness suited the self-image of the citizen. Arguably it became the most popular philosophy at that time. Cicero demonstrated how our deep knowledge of human nature and of circumstances led to natural law as the necessary foundation for man to live successfully in society. And we can read Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s mature reflections on Stoicism (Penguin Classic). He died in 180 AD.
Natural law and the need to conform to it – leading to the highest ideal of virtue, is familiar to us as Christians. Not surprisingly, the Stoic approach was very influential in the moral theology of the early Church, and we have inherited that. As an elementary example, in recognising our social nature we see that lying or breaking promises are wrong because they are incompatible with nature. A Stoic would agree: care for others was cardinal in their thinking for the same reason.
At first sight, Stoicism seems to ignore the idea of a personal God. But analysis takes us closer. The principle of divine reason sounds bleak until we recall that divine reason requires a divine reasoner, and one who demands that we use our share of divine reason to participate in controlling nature, and to accept with dignity what we cannot control. Marcus Aurelius has several synonyms for divine reason – and God is one of them. Similarly the suggestion that Stoicism is pantheistic is no more than our belief that every atom of nature continues to exist from moment to moment by God’s active will that it should.
I would like to report that I am far advanced in my Stoicism but it is work in progress. It certainly helps me to reduce irrational anxieties even if I cannot always quench them. And I have fewer occasions of panic. I know that Stoic meditation helps me to get to sleep quickly, with Marcus Aurelius by my side. I work into my routine mindfulness meditation and deep relaxation. I find these are powerful aids in the control of inappropriate emotion.