Stoic thinking

Every age is an era of violence and despair. Philosophers chronicle the sentiment, not the events, of their society and civilization. Stoicism was the first Western response to such an era, a resigned recognition of decline, crisis, and chaos, a philosophy made especially for ancient Rome.

Roman Stoicism’s most famous representatives make strong figures of character, not philosophers in a systematic sense but philosophers of life: a former slave (Epictetus), an emperor’s tutor (Seneca), and an emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius). Gone was the cultural optimism of Greece in its heyday, still anticipating a perpetual golden age of thought if not policy, dreams pf reason, not chaotic nightmares. From the beginning Rome followed the same trajectory, without formidable external enemies (until the end) to challenge the moral premise of empire.

Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius lived in the very heart of decay and the inevitability of the decline and collapse of the institutions around them. Unlike the Greeks, too, they were disabused of remedies, nostrums, and cultural renewal. The Stoic philosophy they crafted was highly principled while at the same time able to address the core of life and existence just because the era hung so heavily over them.

The Stoic focuses on the self, rescuing the precarious self threatened with extinction by a society obsessed with massive external expressions: vast war, vast fraud, vast plunder, vast wealth, poverty, enslavement, extermination, empire — everything on a grand scale or not at all. Here are the hallmarks of imperial Rome, but also the hallmarks of our modern era, especially since the 20th century. A race toward luxury, consumption, intoxication, and decay is unmitigated by counter-balancing social forces, let alone ethical ques. This is the setting of Stoicism, not because it will reverse the direction or restore morals or champion social tolerance but because it reconciles the self to the reality already sensed.

In the childhood of Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosophers surrounded him. The fashion of the writer was not yet to attribute wisdom and genius to oneself, so Marcus appended as Book 1 a recital of debt or observation: a list of the names of those to whom he is grateful for his upbringing. He cites his father, mother, grandfather, brother (or cousin) and many contemporary Stoic philosophers, attributing to all of them the values of the Stoic. The modern cynic will reduce this debt to class, for wealth brings refinement, and an imperial throne or equivalent one day. Yet Stoicism requires not more wealth or refinement, which often equates to power, privilege, and ego — the opposite of Stoic values. Rather, Stoicism requires, above all, intelligence. The average person will not likely pursue Stoic values of renunciation and pursuit of mindful self-discipline — nor will the dissipated rich. An intelligence merely sufficient to perceive the next pleasure is not intelligence at all but mutilated instinct.

In Book 2 of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius tells us:

That which is from fortune is not separate from nature but interwoven with the things which are ordered by providence. From thence all things flow, as does necessity and the advantages of the universe, of which you are a part. Every part of nature is brought into being by nature itself, and is therefor good, serving to maintain nature.

Our tendency is to divide things into good and evil, in our minds objectifying a polarity, though that which is good or evil depends on the degrees of perception and those perceiving. Because we say that earthquakes and fires are evil, we also say that certain cultures and peoples are evil. And as soon as we conclude who is evil, we introduce an element unknown to nature or providence, an alien thing contradicting the universe, which does everything to its advantage, by which the Stoics mean out of natural law, necessity, or physics, indifferently. The universe has no ethical intentionality. For what good we derive for out lives we can be grateful, and for what evil befalls our lives we can be resignedly forbearing, for these goods and evils are relative to our station, to our society and culture, to historical and environmental circumstances. They are doled out evenly in the grand scheme of the universe.

Could anyone be so fortunate of family relations and upbringing as Marcus Aurelius? Note that the paean to others is an afterword written on the last battlefield of his life. For Marcus lived a grand contradiction: an emperor reduced by wisdom to one skeptical of duty and purpose, to its inner vitality and beneficence. He was reduced to fideism (echoed centuries later by another fideist, Montaigne), wherein duty is followed not because it is good but because ethics consists in the necessity to carry out our duty, as if the carrying out alone was ethics, even when the duty is not intrinsically good and could no longer engender faith. Indeed, duty in this sense was Rome itself for Marcus, necessary to defend and maintain even when he no longer believed in its efficacy.

Duty and purpose are dubious worldly enterprises. Yet Stoicism is the philosophy resonating with the perception of failure, attracting intelligent Romans caught within their own unraveling, both of their person and their world. Epictetus was a slave turned Stoic who saw his fate as the prime irony of civilization, the obverse to the akin station of Marcus Aurelius. And before them stands the tutor of emperors, Seneca the aphorist, perhaps once nurturing the hope of making his protege Nero a philosopher-king as Marcus ought to have been. The Stoics knew that all social life means the creation of false values and hypocritical culture. Nero revealed its nature a little while, Marcus only feigned to salvage it.

Not merely powerful elites but some other mechanism seemed to drive the empire, the state, as it does all societies and civilizations. The Stoics learned that nothing changes the world, the world being driven in its course by larger ineffable forces. The Stoics share with Taoism insights of nature but are unique in the West in reclusing even in the midst of the city, even in the midst of the imperial household, let alone in the marketplace of slaves. The universe disposes indifferently. We have but to appreciate the solitude it still bestows on us regardless of our livelihoods, our fortunes, or the civilizations within which we happen live out our lives.

Thich Naht Hanh’s “love”

Thich Nhat Hanh writes somewhere that our practice should be such that every action, at every moment, is an expression of love.

By practice he may refer not only to his own Buddhism but to that which we do (anyone does) in the course of life, regardless of belief or ethics. Practice is that which constitutes whatever we do. By love is meant that perfect harmony with reality that permits us to be conscious or aware of our attentiveness toward our selves and to beings around us, living or inanimate, all part of a linked whole. With this consciousness, then, what we do is “love.”

To be conscious of each action (and thought, for that matter, if willfully expressed as an action of mind) seems to be a super-human effort, too scrupulous, too difficult, as if blocking out reality rather than perceiving it. This objection arises because we assign reality only to that which is outside us, that which is objective versus subjective, that which is hard and unflinching and even painful. We are already too aware of this criteria, the objection will run, so that now the flow of thought and action should be synchronized, not in the subjective and soft but in active participation in life and society.

To this rationalist line of argument, participation in what is around us constitutes the only requirement, the only source of life and energy, constitutes our very being. The rationalist argues that we define ourselves by the degree of this involvement or participation, not by our consciousness or “love” of anything, by by the degree of input over things that we hold, by our power or exercise of will. We are not to merely to look at things in contemplation, runs the argument, but actively involve ourselves in the affairs of the world if we are to be fully human.

Though this is a rationalist view, the argument is noticeable in Western thinking in general, including religious thinking derived from Aristotle and Plutarch, where involvement becomes social duty, the complementary counterpart to the rationalist’s economic and political pursuits. A whole civilization has been constructed on the premise that action yields progress, and progress yields leadership and power to those who can afford them, and service from those who cannot.

All of this is opposed to the natural and to the natural world. The rationalist is not concerned with harmony but dominance. We are accustomed to activity not as nature but as culture, such that culture comes to oppose nature, to the point of a military preciseness in opposing nature’s realm. Everything is transformed into prey, into sources of fuel and power, whether objects or people, whether living or inanimate, whether beautiful or expendable, whether threatening or simple and benign. This concept of society is then projected back on to nature, “red in tooth and claw” — when in fct it is human society that is red in tooth and claw, not nature.

To the modern world, social life is to make conquests (“goals and objectives”), to compile lists of pretend friends, to make money, to acquire things, to manipulate people, to consume relentlessly. Such is the extrapolation of reason unmitigated by reflection.

In contrast to the world, where anything above a whisper is already too loud, there is what Thich Naht Hanh calls “love.” Here we must wisely distinguish his term from the sentimentalism that is not part of the core definition. To the world, ruthless and consuming, love is merely the option of circumstance and disposal of events. This view is conveniently still too separate from the larger context of nature.

Rather, love is the quiet harmony within a spectacularly complex universe. Love is that practice that wants to be within that harmony. Indeed, that practice does not want or desire but falls into or becomes part of that harmony by its mere turning. The perfection of that turning is love, and the result is a gradient harmony.

By becoming conscious of what we do and say and imagine and contrive, we can monitor our thoughts and actions, we lay ourselves out and open and apparent to the inquiry of consciousness. We begin to identify our “practice” and can thus go about reshaping it in the practice of making each moment significantly aware not just of ourselves by ourselves in the larger whole. True practice then becomes not forced or effort but indistinguishable from our daily life. But to be at this point of harmony!

By our solitude we automatically open eye and ear to this complexity. We must dispose ourselves to it. Our response need only be to grant each action the quality of attunement. Love is no more than this: that we reciprocate to that which constitutes what is real.