Archetypes of Wisdom Douglas J. Soccio Chapter 7The Stoic: Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius
Learning ObjectivesOn completion of this chapter, you should be able toanswer the following questions: What is hedonism? What is Cyrenaic hedonism? What is Epicurean hedonism? What is Cynicism? How is Socrates related to Cynicism and Stoicism? What is the Stoic Logos? What is under our control according to the Stoics? What is the Cosmopolis? Who was James Stockdale?
StoicismInitially, Stoicism emerged as a reaction against the beliefthat pleasure is always good and pain is always bad or evil.The Stoic seeks serenity (peace of mind) through self-discipline.Happiness comes only through detachment from all thingsexternal. The disciplined, reasonable person can be happyunder any and all conditions.For the Stoics, everything is a matter of attitude. Nothingcan make you happy or unhappy without your consent.
HedonismTo a considerable extent, Stoicism is a refutation of thebelief that happiness is determined by means of pleasureand pain. This kind of philosophy is called hedonism(from the Greek root hedone, meaning pleasure).One of the earliest schools of hedonism was started on thecoast of North Africa by Aristippus (c.430-350 B.C.E.),who felt that, because sensory pleasures are more intensethan mental or emotional ones, they are the best of all.Also, actual pleasures in the present are more desirablethan potential pleasures in the future, since the latter mayor may not come and things may be different for us then.
EpicureanismThe unrefined hedonism of Aristippus was soon improvedby Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.), who moved to Athens atthe age of eighteen to complete his military service.Believing that political activities and ambitions werepointless, Epicurus started a school of philosophy called“the Garden.” This was one of the few places in Greecewhere women were allowed and encouraged to interactwith men as equals.Epicurus claimed that only the quality of our pleasures andpains is important. This departure from Aristippus’emphasis on quantity distinguishes Epicureanism: adesire for a pleasant life of simplicity, prudence, andfriendship.
CynicismAnother influence on the origins of Stoicism wasCynicism, a philosophic “school” in the loosest sense.Founded by Antisthenes (c.455-360 B.C.E.), who formeda school called the Cynosarges (The Silver Dog), theCynics revolted against the rigidity of Plato and Aristotle(while admiring Socrates’ disdain for fashion).The Cynics believed that the very essence of civilization iscorrupt, and so lived austere, unconventional lives. Theydistrusted luxury as a “hook” that always broughtcomplications and frustration into people’s lives.What happiness there is could only come from self-discipline and rational control of all desires and appetites,with minimal contact with conventional society.
Stoic AdmirationThe philosophical school known as Stoicism was foundedin Greece by Zeno (c. 334-262 B.C.E.) around 300 B.C.E.Because Zeno lectured at a place called the stoa poikile, orpainted porch, his followers were known as “men of theporch.”Alexander’s empire fell apart immediately after his death,and the Romans quickly adopted Stoicism (as they did somuch of Greek culture).One reason that Stoicism flourished in Rome may havebeen the admiration that Stoics had for the Cynics, whomthey regarded as a sort of ideal – with their sturdycharacter and “free open-air spirit.”
Roman StoicismStoicism appealed to Romans living in times of greatuncertainty, under emperors of widely differing abilitiesand virtues.It spread throughout the Roman world because it wasadvocated by three important public figures: Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E.). Cato (95 – 46 B.C.E.). Seneca (c. 4 B.C. – 6.5 C.E.) a Roman senator and one of the finest Stoic writers.
Epictetus: From Slave to SageIronically, one of the most important Stoic philosopherswas a former slave named Epictetus (c. 50-130 C.E.).Perhaps because a slave’s life is not his own, Epictetus hadinsight into the major issue of Stoicism: controlling whatwe can and accepting what is beyond our control.As a slave, the only absolute control Epictetus had wasover his own reactions to what happened. His motto wasAnechou kai apechou: Bear and forbear.Freed after Nero’s death in 68 C.E., Epictetus became awell-known teacher. At about 90 C.E., all philosopherswere ordered out of Rome by the emperor Domitian, so hefled to Nicopolis in Greece, where he taught until very old.
Philosopher-KingAnother notable Stoic was the Roman Emperor MarcusAurelius (121-180 C.E.). While their pay scales varied,the philosophies of Epictetus and Aurelius were verysimilar.By temperament a scholar and a recluse, Marcus Aureliuslived surrounded by commotion, deception, and crowds,and so told himself – in his journal, known to us as hisMeditations – to “look within” and to “only attend tothyself” (the only thing the Stoics believe we can control).The last truly great figure of Imperial Rome, MarcusAurelius was once described as “by nature a saint and asage, by profession a warrior and a ruler” – a StoicPhilosopher-King.
The Fated LifeThe Stoics believed that the actual course of our lives isdirected by the Logos – which they thought of as WorldReason, Cosmic Mind, God, and Providence, or fate.The Stoics learned, as many of us do, that our lives are notentirely our own. But rather than complain about whatthey could not control, the Stoics chose to master whatthey could – their own minds.The Stoics felt that serenity comes to those whose will isin accord with the World Reason, the Logos, as suchthinking leads to a reduction of frustration and anxiety.As Epictetus says, “we are actors playing roles we do notchoose, and our duty is to play them as best we can,knowing that our fate is part of a much larger order.”
Stoic WisdomIf this is true, then nothing that happens can be “wrong” or“bad,” since everything that happens is part of God’srational plan.If your life is beyond your control, direct your effortstoward what you can control – your attitude or will.Developing a disinterested rational will is a matter ofhaving no personal attachments or motives.For Stoics, wisdom consists in thinking of things thathappen to you as you would any other event in the world,as a necessary part of the whole. And as everyone else isin the same situation, we are all part of a “universal city” –where each person is indifferent to themselves, knowingthat “Logos knows best.”
Control versus InfluenceEven though the Stoics believed in destiny, or fate, theyalso talked about choosing appropriate actions, in additionto just controlling our attitudes.In other words, there appear to be gaps in our fate – andthere you can have some influence.For example, technically speaking, you cannot absolutelycontrol your grades, although you have considerableinfluence over them.Likewise, we do not control our destinies; we influencethem just enough so that we should do our best to behaveresponsibly.
Some Things Are Not in Our ControlAccording to Epictetus, “Not in our power are the body,property, reputation, offices and in a word, whatever arenot our own acts.”Once an individual realizes that how long he or she lives,who likes or doesn’t like them, and their social status arebeyond their control, the individual can quit being fearful.One can manage his or her health with moderation, but onecannot be bitter if after watching his or her diet andexercising daily, he or she develops cancer.Bitterness will not get a person well. Bitterness, or envy,or resentment are never one’s fate; they are always thechoice of the individual.
Some Things Are in Our ControlHowever, writes Epictetus, “In our power are opinion,movement towards a thing, desire, aversion; and in a word,whatever are our own acts.”What is in our power is our free will. We control ourfeelings about things, because we control our thinking.This frees us from depending on other people’s opinions ofus for our self-esteem or happiness.We suffer to the extent that we take our lives personally.So, our status, good fortunes, mishaps, and relationshipsshould be evaluated with the same disinteresteddetachment that we would give to everything else.
Suffering and CourageStoicism is a “mature” philosophy in that its appeal seemsto increase with experience, that is, with frustration anddisappointment.Growing up emotionally and philosophically involvesadopting realistic expectations and accepting one’s limits.As Seneca says, “Prosperity can come to the vulgar and toordinary talents, but to triumph over adversity and thedisasters of mortal life is the privilege of the great man.”So, while making reasonable efforts to get what we want,it is wise to learn to be happy with what we get.
Stoicism TodayToday, Stoicism forms the basis of various cognitive(rationalistic) psychological therapies.Three of the most influential are: William Glasser’s reality therapy. Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy. Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.
The Life of James Bond StockdaleWhat we know as the Enchiridion ofEpictetus can be a powerful consolationand support to people undergoing theseverest trials.James Bond Stockdale (1923-2005), a viceadmiral (retired) in the U.S. Navy, creditedthe lessons of Epictetus with helping himsurvive as a prisoner of war in NorthVietnam for over seven years, includingfour in solitary confinement.He was awarded the Congressional Medalof Honor after his release.Stockdale published an article titled “TheWorld of Epictetus” in 1978.
Discussion QuestionsWhat do you think of James Stockdale’s claim that a goodphilosophical education is highly practical?Review his position and comments. What traits does hehave in common with Epictetus? Do you agree or disagreethat Stockdale is a Stoic?
Chapter Review: Key Concepts and ThinkersStoicism Epictetus (c. 50 -130 C.E.).Hedonism Aristippus (c. 430-350 B.C.E.)Cyrenaic hedonism Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.)Cynicism Zeno (c. 334-262 B.C.E.) James Bond Stockdale (1923-Cynic 2005)LogosStoicsMarcus Aurelius (121-180 C. E.)