For me, philosophy falls into two fairly broad categories: “bullshit”, and “hey, that’s pretty cool”.
Stoicism is pretty cool – it falls into a fairly uninhabited part of the venn diagram between ‘rationally rigorous’ and ‘practical’ philosophy. Usually philosophy is either extremely logical (e.g. an examination of what we mean by the phrase ‘the current king of France is bald‘) or is practical but wishy-washy (look at your Facebook feed for examples of this, usually with a picture of Marilyn Monroe or a Minion).
Not only is Stoicism rigorous enough for you to engage with it on a rational level, it also contains a lot of practical advice about how to live. Before the Renaissance, and particularly in Ancient Greece, this was a key component of philosophy. In fact, philosophy covered pretty much everything and it’s a fairly recent development that subjects have branched away from philosophy. Aristotle, for example, wrote on ethics, politics, biology, physics, poetry, music, and other topics. They were treated as part of a whole rather than individual and separate subjects with no interdependence. This is a long distance from Academic Western Philosophy today – which instead focuses on deep specialisation of topics. Ethics – how to live your life, was informed by everything else; if you don’t understand what the world is like, and your own nature, how can you understand what you are meant to do?
For Ancient Greeks, everything was directed towards human flourishing – called ‘eudaimonia’ in Ancient Greek. This is tricky to directly translate into English – sometimes it’s translated as ‘happiness’ but I think ‘flourishing’ or ‘fulfilment’ are more accurate terms. Different philosophical schools had different approaches on how to achieve eudaimonia – to name three: Aristotle preached focussing on developing virtue as a habit, and on developing the rational mind; Epicurus instead thought we should avoid pain and seek out pleasure and Pyrrho of Elis said that making unfounded judgements on things causes us to avoid the good life so we should adopt a position of Scepticism.
The main tenets of Stoicism are pretty simple: only those things over which you have control can be either good or bad (as otherwise eudaimonia would be a matter of chance rather than earnt). Everything else – things that are not in our control – is indifferent when considered as part of the good life. It’s not part of the equation. Most of the problems we face result from us making errors in judgement – we try to control things over which we have no control, and we do not exercise control over those things which we do. Many of these principles have been adopted into psychological practices such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
From this description you can tell that Stoicism in the philosophical sense doesn’t quite mean what stoicism in the common language sense means today.
Stoicism has had a bit of a resurgence lately, thanks in no small part to a project led by the University of Exeter called ‘Stoicism Today‘. As part of this project, they run an annual ‘Stoic Week‘ with an online course and corresponding handbook, providing information on how to adopt the principles of Stoic philosophy and live them for one week. There’s even a conference during the week in London if you are especially keen. This year it starts in just over a week’s time – starting on Monday November 2nd.
It’s well worth a go if you are at all interested in philosophy, or Stoicism in particular – it’s free, takes little of your time and is intended to be a way to dip into philosophy without requiring any prior background.
This year’s Stoic Week is on Marcus Aurelius (from Gladiator!) who wrote Meditations – probably the most popular Stoic text. There’s lots more info on the Stoic Today website and I’ll write a few posts about Stoicism over the next month or so. Including why Marcus Aurelius sucks…