Tuesday 22 September 2009

Thoughts on Stoicism

What follows is my contribution to a debate on another network.

Actually, Puck, that is not what Stoic philosophy is about at all. Are you familiar with The Meditations of the divine Marcus Aurelius? If not I would heartily endorse Joe’s recommendation.

Anyway, Stoicism, as represented through books like The Meditations, is simply a way of determining what is important and what is not. It is not about riding oneself to ‘circumstances’, however that is supposed to be defined, and it is certainly not about allowing ‘natural feelings’ to take their place.

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘natural feeling’ anyway, though this would seem to come much closer to Epicureanism. Stoicism is an entirely rational branch of philosophical thought, as opposed to emotive or essential, a way of viewing everything, from ethics to existence itself, through the eye of the mind, in a mood of complete detachment. Moreover, it is not based on fatalism but realism. It’s a kind of standing back, if you prefer, a withdrawing into oneself, as Seneca puts it in the Letters to Lucilius; hence Marcus’ own process of self-reflection.

Yes there is a strong asceticism to the whole doctrine, but it is this that one finds true peace. The process of reflection, or retreat, also allows for continual self-renewal, a washing away of all pain and resentment caused by direct experience. All of the negative experiences of life are, by this scheme of things, based on ignorance or alienation from the higher, and purer, forms of reason.

The practical aspect is also strong. In some ways it is no better basis for dealing with the frustrations, the silliness and the stupidity of every-day life, and of dealing with all of those who embody those negative virtues, particularly the stupid and the ignorant. Anyway, I feel a quotation coming on, and how I love quotations! This is from Book II Part I of "The Meditations":

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

Yes, indeed. Ave Imperator. :)

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