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.