Stoicism arises in periods of social crisis but not revolutionary periods. An example is the era transitioning to empire in ancient Rome, which saw the leading thinkers from Cicero and Cato to first-century Epictetus and Seneca dominate the little original creative thought of the era. Marcus Aurelius represents the Stoicism of an empire conscious of its own forthcoming demise, so that his Meditations carry a stronger sense of pathos. What is dying is a known world, like ourselves.
In each case, Stoicism is an expression of a disillusioned intelligentsia, of those hemmed in by power and authority who recognize the absolute intransigence or immobility of institutions and structures. Within the realization is the paradox or folly of complicity. Epictetus was once a slave and rings more honestly than do the lines of Seneca, tutor to the murderous Nero and his dangerous family, but who writes with a stolid sense of duty, decorum, and obligation. The ultimate complicity comes from the emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius, who must reconcile his duty to his conscience, aware that to abdicate brings greater chaos to the innocent than to continue the evil that his complicity and station in life already bring.
Thus Stoicism became a vehicle for the well-born to assuage their contradiction, to be forever wedded to the world in identity and duty. Christianity inherited a good deal of this dilemma, formed by ambition mingled with fate, the inextricable dilemma of obligation to society and to others at the sacrifice of self. Boethius composed the Stoic Consolation of Philosophy in a prison cell awaiting execution.
Another era of Stoicism is post-Reformation Europe, where interminable wars of religion dragged the continent into continued miseries. It was an era of growing absolutism, and the rigidity of institutions and structures suggested to the intelligent — again, necessarily the well-born — that nothing would change for the better. They fled decision and action for the balm of necessity and reflection. Thus Montaigne, during the wars of religion in 16th-century France, rather than choose between religious sects or rivals for the throne, threw up his hands and said that it was all up to God or fate. Which was true, in a clever sort of way. The dramatists of the era — Corneille, Racine, Moliere — are entirely focused on versions of the classics of Greek and Roman theater, and present tragedies as Stoicism, daring not to identify them with the contemporary world which they are nevertheless depicting.
Pascal, too, is a Stoic, hedging his theological bets and wondering where to turn when one sees through the world and its pretensions. Pascal dabbles with fideism (faith because it is duty), as does Montaigne. Fideism is the inevitable mask of living in a harsh and absolutist world. Fideist mask are everywhere in fundamentalist countries, to be sure, and will have to do. In the end, polite acquiescence and not a new philosophical argument is all that the world demands.
In Spain, nothing tops the Stoicism of Baltasar Gracian, full of wit, irony, and solace for the intelligent and well-born who will never succeed in budging the institutions and structures of their day. In Gracian, there is too much mirth and too many inside jests to be moralistic or melancholic. Melancholy would not do in the triumphalist state of empire. Sober duty is to be presented to the sovereign monarch and the equally sovereign and humorless ecclesiastical system. Gracian is a proper Jesuit who wrote under a pseudonym when he could, narrowly escaping undue attention.
But Stoicism works: duty carried out, with a knowing glance and a stiff upper lip. Writes Gracian:
We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.
Galileo, too, represents the dilemma in the early modern era. His confrontation with an intransigent institution and structure destroyed any sensible arguments he could present for science, reason, and empiricism — except the most practical argument for himself: survival. As Brecht presents the drama of the same title, a student asks the elderly Galileo why he recanted, then answers himself that ah! Galileo sacrificed himself to safeguard his students. Galileo answers no, it was that he did not like pain. A Stoic’s reply, perhaps Brecht’s own in the world of East Germany where he lived.
But revolutionary eras cannot entertain Stoicism. If Seneca or Galileo were seen as true revolutionaries, they would not have been able to opt out, so to speak. During the earliest persecution of Christians in Roman arenas, during the French Revolution, the Resistance against Nazism, Gandhi’s activism against the British Empire — there was no room for Stoicism but a forcible dichotomy between institution and individual, between power and authority versus the individual, wherein the individual perceived no duty, only a conflict between absolutes, with nothing to lose.
In 17th century England, with the upheaval of a monarch’s execution, Cromwellian dictatorship and overthrow, and a coup representing continental absolutism, most English intelligentsia were content to foster an outward fideism in the form of patriotism, a mild skepticism or Stoicism, while the true revolutionaries who were spawned by the Cromwellian era, were crushed. An unspoken compromise allowed for autonomy, as long as it did not challenge the existing institutions. Stoicism is the most opportune philosophy for such times.
Stoicism is not a measure of desperation but an exhaustion of possibility. Stoicism is a disillusionment with the world that must still continue to wear the mask of being in the world.
Nor is Stoicism a philosophy of disengagement. The Stoic responds, often in pain, to a mad world, regretting loss and ruing folly but determined to make a moral statement by remaining within society. Perhaps it is fear that motivates the Stoic from disengagement, a vacillation that is nevertheless fatal to the soul, even while the body lives. The intelligent may not be so well-born to put up with folly because they find themselves at the bottom of the rung and cannot really move forward.
Stoicism is a few paces from the insight of the solitary life. It wrestles with the world as shaped by human vice and clearly sees through it. But the Stoic stays engaged, through hypocrisy or dissembling or by keeping a low profile, never sure whether tomorrow will bring redemption after all, the chance to be happy and self-fulfilled.
There is much nobility in Stoicism, and reading Stoic writers is rewarding, but the solitary may already know the Stoics’ logic and already anticipated the shortcomings. Above all, the solitary may not maintain the patience or high expectations in the notion that we must persevere in tolerating the world.