My first encounter with Stoicism came when I was in my last year of high school. I had always been an inquisitive student who was not afraid to question the ideas or arguments put forward in class. At the time, it seemed that philosophy was a course designed for me. I remember excitedly looking forward to class and wondering what new idea or argument we would come up against each day.
To me, philosophy at that time was always a challenge, an intellectual puzzle. Although questions of freewill and determinism kept me awake at night, life for the most part went on. It wasn’t until I underwent personal struggle that I realized the transformative aspects of philosophy. I realized that philosophy was not just an intellectual pursuit, but can more importantly become a way of life. This realization occurred to me when I came across The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
I will never forget my first reading of The Meditations. Aurelius was a man who had every reason to be arrogant and brass, and yet, through reading his private thoughts you find a man who is humble and reflective. A Roman Emperor who commanded the respect of thousands of people in one of the biggest empires of human history, a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, who spent much of his time in wars he could not avoid, whose family was struck with hardship after hardship. His meditations a reminder to himself:
“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved as the raging of the sea falls still around it."
Many people come to discover Stoicism after reading one of the great Stoic thinkers like Aurelius, Seneca, or Epictetus. Each of these men have left us with written works that seek to provide us with advice about how we can find happiness and inner tranquility. Stoicism’s philosophical roots date back to around 300 B.C.E. with the founding of the school by Zeno of Citium. Zeno’s school of philosophy focused on logic, physics and ethics. Later, when it was imported to Rome, Stoicism would acquire a further emphasis on achieving inner tranquility.
The appeal of Stoicism, I believe, is based on its acknowledgement that we must, for the most part, take life as it comes. We must realize that life is short and that tranquility and happiness must come from within. Although we can eat right and exercise, cancer may strike our body. Even though we can live extremely cautiously, accidents still happen. You can drink green tea every day, and yet at some point you will die. Even the best-laid plans or intentions can fall apart.
Instead of trying to control every single aspect of our lives, Stoicism urges us to realize that we must come to understand the things that we have control over and the things that we do not. Accordingly, we can only truly control how we perceive the events of our lives; the degree to which something hurts us is purely based on how much we decide to let it.
Unfortunately, I think many people confuse the Stoic notion of control with a kind of fatalistic pacifism. The idea that I can’t completely control any external event, and so, I should just stay within myself and remain inactive in the world.
However, I would disagree with this assessment of Stoic control. I would argue that Stoicism demands that each of us must actively try to shape and change the world, but we must recognize what we are capable of and not let our efforts, whether they are to succeed or fail, affect our inner tranquility.
Aside from urging us to realize that happiness and tranquility come from acknowledging our lack of control with regards to external events, and focusing on interpreting these events as having some good; Stoicism also has a practical side to it, as many of the Stoic thinkers have advocated tools that can be used to help guide one in their practice of Stoicism. These tools can range from meditation, to visualization and self-control.
Stoicism is a philosophy that I would recommend to anyone as I think it has a universal appeal and can be of benefit to everyone. One only needs to look at the wide range of Stoic thinkers from the past to see this to be true. Among the Stoics we find Emperors, academics, playwrights, soldiers, slaves, and many more. Whether you find yourself in a period of great prosperity or grief; Stoicism has something positive to say that will deeply influence how you live and view the world.
My own journey into Stoicism has helped me through hardships both personal and professional. I believe that it has afforded me with a sense of tranquility and calm, which was something that I was missing in my life. The nature of this world is such that each of us will experience highs and lows. Stoicism has allowed me to appreciate the ups and face the downs with acceptance for what they are, a natural part of my life.
1 Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 137. Print.