“The Death of Seneca” by Jean Guillaume Moitte (French, Paris 1746–1810 Paris) | https://tricy.cl/2DoaySx
The growing popularity of Stoic mind training seems connected to its non-dogmatic, reason-based set of tools for cultivating emotional resilience, overcoming suffering, and cultivating a life of service to others. Like Buddhism, modern Stoicism is grounded in the insights of ancient teachers who believed that overcoming self-caused suffering should be at the center of philosophical inquiry.
The first Stoic was Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), himself a student of a radical homeless philosopher named Crates of Thebes. Many following teachers produced a huge literature, most of which was lost. Later Stoics whose writings have survived include the philosopher and playwright Seneca (4-65 CE) and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), author of the perennially popular Meditations, a notebook of reflections he wrote for himself that was published after his death.
The core of Stoic practice was summed up by Epictetus as the recognition that “some things are up to us, and others are not.” What is up to us (or at least can be so increasingly, with practice) are our own opinions, and the desires and aversions we assent to. What is not up to us is everything else—things like the behavior of other people, our health, our lifespan (or that of others), our reputation, or our wealth. We should cultivate equanimity towards these “externals,” advised the Stoics.
Epictetus provides a simple summary of why: if we direct our desire to anything we can not hope to control, we are doomed to feel “thwarted, miserable, and upset.” Epictetus argued that we should only desire that which we have a solid hope of attaining—the growth of our own wisdom and character. As he put it, “If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.” There is a marked resonance here with the Buddhist teaching on the “eight worldly winds,” which is shared by many Buddhist lineages. As the Buddha put it, “Gain and loss, status and disgrace, blame and praise, pleasure, and pain: these conditions among human beings are ephemeral, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, and undesirable ones bring no resistance (The Failings Of The World Sutta, AN 8.6).” As in Buddhist meditation, many Stoic contemplations center around visualizing the impermanence and uncontrollability of all things.
Like Buddhism, Stoicism is often caricatured and misunderstood in the West. Stoicism and Buddhism have both been misconstrued as individualistic or quietist because of their focus on tranquility and self-discipline. Contrary to this caricature, Stoicism emphasized human dignity and civic responsibility. It was Stoicism that first popularized the concept of “cosmopolitanism,” that all of the world (cosmos) is my community (polis). Marcus Aurelius once wrote to himself, “When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I.”
Stoicism also has an unwarranted reputation for cultivating a life of repressed emotions and unfeeling grimness. The Stoic goal known as apatheia does not mean thoughtless indifference, but rather “freedom from afflictive emotions (pathos),” chief of which are distress and fear. Apatheia is to result in a healthy emotional life, known as eupatheia (good emotion). According to scholar John Sellars’ book Stoicism, there were three good Stoic emotions: joy (which includes pleasure in one’s own good state of being, mirth, and cheerfulness); caution (which includes modesty and reverence); and wishing (which includes benevolence, friendliness, and rationally judging certain things preferable to others). Once all attachment to what is beyond our control is surrendered, we are free to live both joyful and useful lives…