Rumor has it that there are Stoics among the members of Old Chatham Monthly Meeting. I personally consider Stoicism a worthy spiritual path; and in the last decade or so, this ancient philosophy has gained so many converts that it’s now possible to speak of “pop-Stoicism” as exemplified by the Stoic paraphernalia marketed by Ryan Holiday, who also writes a daily blog on the subject.
Of course, popularity is no guide to the essential rightness of a particular spirituality, and Stoicism—especially as practiced by the Ancient Romans—has its share of critics. But what was Stoicism, exactly?
Leaving aside Stoic cosmology, we could say that the Stoics wanted to pursue Virtue, as exemplified in courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. More specifically, Stoics advised their fellow human beings to refuse to worry about or feel anxiety over what they could not personally control.
So, if Vesuvius wiped out Pompeii, Herculaneum, and surrounding environs, there was no point in getting overly upset about the disaster. On the other hand, if a Roman emperor commanded you to do something that was unjust or unwise, you should have the courage to refuse his order in spite of the personal consequences. Your personal Virtue would remain inviolate and untouched even if you were exiled or forced to commit suicide.
Well, Henry Gruber argues that three famous Roman Stoics failed to pursue justice in spite of their philosophy. So, for example, Seneca curried favor with the emperor Nero and even helped him write a speech justifying the murder of Nero’s mother. Epictetus, once a slave and later a philosopher in Rome and Greece, criticized the “slavery” of upper-class Romans to wealth and prestige; but Epictetus never questioned the morality of human slavery itself. And Marcus Aurelius (pictured) abandoned his youthful romanticism for a stultifying sense of duty.
Of course, just because a person doesn’t act according to his own ideas doesn’t mean that the ideas themselves are wrong. Moreover, Gruber’s idea of justice transcends the personal. Social justice was not a tenet of ancient Stoicism. Epictetus, for example, could not be expected to challenge slavery as an institution, especially since slavery was woven into the very fabric of ancient society. Epictetus accepts slavery as a natural, inevitable part of existence. St. Paul had a similar attitude, only exhorting masters to be kind to their slaves. As for Marcus Aurelius, Gruber’s criticism falls flat as he seems to criticize Marcus merely for growing up into a sober statesman.
A more cogent criticism of Stoicism is made by Iskra Fileva, who applies modern psychology to her critique of this ancient philosophy. But we’ll save Iskra for Part II of this little disquisition on Stoicism, in which I’ll also comment on the Stoicism that may be found among Quakers.
~ Richard Russell
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