Call it an endless string of experiences or a series of vivid sensations of the world around, we are all suffering from a mysterious condition, called life or existence. Existence is difficult to define in objective terms. One can only derive a vague understanding of existence through the complex fabric of encounters and experiences that shape how we see the world. But does one’s myopic and vague understanding stop one from expressing one’s subjective take on the matter? Certainly not. Discussions on existence have permeated through the history of humankind. Myriad answers have been proposed and rejected over the years but a solitary troubling question has remained unchanged: what is the best way to live?
Despite the peculiar existential ‘situatedness’ that is exclusive to every individual, there remains one universal narrative that has seemed to establish its grip on everyone. An idea that has been passionately explored by myriad traditions of the past and the present – life is suffering; a meld of ephemeral pleasures and perpetual despair.
The murky river of existence, to which we are eternally stuck, is, well, doomed. With every meandering turn it inflicts painful blows, pulverises hopes and leaves us in a state of absolute despondence and melancholia. Sorrow is inextricably linked to existence. Sorrow stems from attachments and poisons our lives; an idea deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy. This realisation itself is sufficient to make a person depressed for the rest of his life, knowing that whatever he does shall in no way improve his dull existence.
Much deliberation went into the matter, in response to which a Greek man proposed his own tenets to lead a joyful life. This later took the form of a full-fledged school of thought called Stoicism. Far removed from other philosophies, that expound obscure esoteric questions pertaining to the metaphysics or epistemology of existence, stoicism employs the Socratic approach to discuss practical issues which have a direct bearing on the lives of common people. The idea was to search for the best means to lead a happy life, in the face of the pandemonium that had descended over the political landscape of the Hellenistic period.
Our tale begins with a sailing merchant by the name of Zeno who, after surviving a major shipwreck, ends up in the city of Athens. During his stay, he visited a bookstore which proved to be the turning point of his life. That was the day he was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates. Fascinated by his findings, Zeno decided to pursue his newly developed interest in philosophy and asked the librarian to suggest a teacher who could guide him. The librarian recommended a man named Crates, who, for the coming years, instructed Zeno on the idea of Cynicism; an outgrowth of Socratic thought. A passionate student, Zeno studied not only Cynicism but also other schools of thought that prevailed during that time. This equipped him with the ability to understand the world through multiple lenses, and much later helped him develop a theory of his own.
While Cynicism exposed Zeno to a brand new world of naturalistic existence, one that defied all societal norms, it didn’t quite resonate with his own personal beliefs. After all who would want to lie around, naked in broad daylight, disturbing everybody passing by, like the cynic Diogenes? Dissatisfied with whatever knowledge he had acquired so far, he decided to part ways with the school and set out on a new journey. Zeno took up teaching. He lectured pupils on his own precepts, in the middle of the city, which actually turned out to be quite successful. Several students flocked to the beautiful building of Stoa Poikile, to hear their great teacher speak. It is here that the foundations of Stoicism were finally laid.
While Zeno remains a major player in our story, he isn’t the only one. Several other intellectuals also subscribed and greatly contributed to the doctrine. These thinkers included greats such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. They, together with Zeno, spoke in great detail about the various facets of Stoicism. Here, I’ll be discussing aspects of Stoic ethics that surprisingly enough remain relevant till date.
All that is studied in Ethics today has a very direct connection with the ideas that were propounded by these thinkers. Stoic ethics mainly investigated happy existence and the conditions required to reach that state. The aim is to end suffering and live in harmony with nature. So, how did they achieve it?
At the core of Stoic ethics lies the idea of Oikeiosis, loosely translating to orientation. Every living thing in the world has a basic constitution, assigned to it by the natural order. For animals it is self-preservation, but in the case of humans, the oikeiosis is much greater as it involves our extraordinary ability to reason. Thus stoicism takes into account our primitive behaviour along with the potentiality to transcend it, since to be rational one is required to step out of the realm of primitive desires. It ascribes greater importance to the actions that are motivated by reason rather than animalistic desires.
A very simple doctrine of the Stoics, from which one can derive a massive life lesson is that one needs to make a demarcation between things that fall under one’s control and things which don’t. All that is external to us is, quite naturally, in a state of chaos and something that’s independent of us. We can’t impose ourselves on the mechanisms of nature which remain outside the clutches of our will. However, we can change our perspectives and actions towards it.
Think about it. In a brief session of introspection, we can easily discern that our lives are stranded between regrets of the past and fears of the future. All that stoicism asks is - why give a damn? To be Stoic is to remain indifferent to whatever lies beyond you. And it is when you become indifferent that you begin to act out of reason rather than passion. The Stoics may as well be dubbed the Buddhists of the western tradition, in some respects. Their ethics have a striking resemblance to the 2nd noble truth of the Buddha.
Whenever something bothers you, stop a second and ask - “Can I change this situation?” If yes, then strive towards that change otherwise be unfazed by it. This might seem difficult at first but if this little ritual of interrupting negativity is followed, life can transform drastically. The key is to halt expectations and to be at peace with oneself. In the words of Marcus Aurelius:
“If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.”
Understand stoicism as a philosophy that prepares you to face the bitter truths of life, without getting affected. It engineers you in a manner such that you can’t help but walk a virtuous path. It imparts the lesson that one must moderate one’s desires and emotions by employing reason, untouched by the highs and lows of life. Stoicism values self-control and an acceptance of whatever comes one’s way. Above all, however, stoicism is about empowering the ‘ruler within you.’
It is obvious that in the 21st century, the age of despair and silenced voices, humans are drawn towards a philosophy which can offer them tranquillity and order. Ours is a generation being pulled by desire with a force we can’t resist. We end up either letting go of the reins of control, becoming slaves to our passions, or fretting over situations which we can’t possibly control. It, therefore, becomes imperative to adopt Stoicism, because honestly, what is a life without happiness? Stoicism is the emancipatory force to guide us towards the path of a more fulfilled and joyful existence.
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