The slave, the philosopher and the emperor - Understanding Stoicism: Historical context pt.3
First of all I’d like to apologize for the long waits between episodes of Understanding Stoicism. Things have been kind of crazy lately, but the dust has settled for now. So, without further ado, welcome to part 3 of the historical context of Stoicism.
I’ve noticed that Stoicism is quite a popular philosophy in this crazy neck of the woods. Some people reference it literary in their post or comments, while others think and write things that closely resemble a Stoic outlook on life (whether they are aware of it or not).
To understand why this ancient philosophy is still popular today, I’ve decided to start a series of posts critically analysing Stoicism and its various revivals and influences throughout the ages. Welcome to Understanding Stoicism!
Before we dive into a critical analysis of the tenets of Stoic philosophy, we first need to learn something about its historical context. The first three parts of Understanding Stoicism will mostly act as an introductory history lesson. Later parts will feature extensive critical analysis of Stoic ethics, epistemology and cosmology.
Historical Context pt.3: Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius - The slave, the philosopher and the emperorJacques-Louis David - The death of Seneca Source)
The three men we’ll meet today were the living examples of the idea that Stoicism is for everyone, no matter who you are or where you come from.
Epictetus (50-135 AD) was born a slave and spent most of his life crippled. Constantly being at the mercy of someone else, gave him an unique outlook that fundamentally shaped his Stoic ideas. The way he saw it, everyone is a slave in some way. Most people just don’t realize this and suffer as a result.
There are an unlimited amount of factors that determine our lives that we simply cannot control. Epictetus calls these ‘external things’ or ‘aprohairetic things’: our bodies, our possessions, the weather, how the actions of others affect us, etc. These are all things that have a direct influence on our lives, yet we have no direct control over ourselves. We do, however, have direct control over how we let these things affect us internally. Or to put it in Epictetus his own words: “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”
It is not the things themselves that cause suffering, but our opinions and emotions surrounding them. Once we realize this, we can use our reason to detach ourselves from the suffering and reach a peace of mind (ataraxia) and the mastery of our emotions (apatheia).
Negative emotions, and especially anger, were a favorite topic of philosopher and statesman Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD). He even wrote a book called ‘On Anger’ in which he analyses what he calls “the plague that has cost the human race more than any other plague.”
According to Seneca anger represents the pinnacle of human irrationality. Luckily we carry the antidote within ourselves all the time: proper rational thought. The following quote sums this up quite nicely:
“Anger is altogether inconsistent. Sometimes it goes further than it should, Sometimes it stops short. It indulges itself, judges capriciously, refuses to listen, leaves no room for defense, clings to what it has seized and will not have its judgment, even a wrong judgment, taken from it. Reason gives time to either side, and then demands a further adjournment to give itself room to tease out the truth: anger is in a hurry. Reason wishes to pass a fair judgment: anger wishes the judgment which it has already passed to seem fair. Reason considers nothing save the matter at issue; anger is roused by irrelevant trifles.”
But Seneca doesn’t stop here and digs deeper. He concludes that the reason we are angered by external things, is rooted in our unrealistic expectations. This doesn’t mean however we should have a pessimistic or nihilistic outlook on life. Happiness doesn’t lie in low expectations, but in acceptance. This acceptance of everything that happens to you, the acceptance of your faith, is a core principle in Stoicism.
And no man said this better than the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) himself: “[...] if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.”
In a way Marcus Aurelius can be seen as the pinnacle of classic Stoic thought. Not because of his new revolutionary insights, but because of his practical embodiment and the way he carried out Stoic philosophy while being the most powerful man in the world. What started of as a Greek philosophy preached by a crazy man living in a barrel, would become the most successful school of thought in Roman society just 500 years later.
As an emperor with both feet firmly planted in worldly affairs, Aurelius was mostly concerned with the practical use of Stoicism. He studies the Stoics thoroughly and applied their knowledge to become the best man he could be. Luckily for us, he had a great way of putting his insights into words. So allow me to conclude this historical perspective on Stoicism with this lengthy but very powerful quote, taken from his ‘The Meditations’:
“Such a man, determined here and now to aspire to the heights, is indeed a priest and minister of the gods; for he is making full use of that indwelling power which can keep a man unsullied by pleasures, proof against pain, untouched by insult, and impervious to evil.
He is a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery; he is imbued through and through with uprightness, welcoming wholeheartedly whatever falls to his lot and rarely asking himself what others may be saying or doing or thinking, except when the public interest requires it.
He confines his operations to his own concerns, having his attention fixed on his own particular thread of the universal web; seeing to it that his actions or honourable, and convinced that what befalls him must be for the best - for his own directing fate is itself under a higher direction.
He does not forget the brotherhood of all rational beings, nor that a concern for every man is proper to humanity; and he knows that it is not the world’s opinions he should follow, but only those of men whose lives confessedly accord with Nature.
As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes, has no value for him.”
Next time we'll dive deeper into more specific aspects of Stoic thought, starting with the basis that underlies it all: Stoic cosmology.
But in the meantime, think about this!
Are you carrying around thoughts and habits that stop you from being your best self? And what practical steps can you make to stop them?
Sources and further reading
More Understanding Stoicism
- Historical Context pt.1 - A cynical man and his bathtub
- Historical Context pt.2 - Oracles, shipwrecks and lentil soup