Ancient Greece’s Undying Legacy of Stoicism

Stoicism as a philosophy that emerged from Ancient Greece has shown a stunning record of endurance throughout the centuries. Its components have universal and long-lasting value and stand as testament to the intellectual maturity of Ancient Athens at the time. Championing rationality and virtue, Stoicism stood as a natural outgrowth of early Western civilization which was characterized by freedom and encouraged the merits of individual inquiry.

The Stoics prized both a realistic and a moral way of living. They believed in tempering one’s emotional fluctuations by instead of “leaning in” to the turbulence of emotions to “lean out” and learn to look at things with a detached, remote perspective that kept one coolly aloof from the issue at hand, allowing one to analyze and problem-solve with a clear head and in a rational manner.

The Greek Stoic Epictetus was adamant that man was in control of only one thing and that one thing was his own individual will. This was a logical observation, uncovered by deductive reasoning. All that man could definitively exercise his own powers over, and sway the outcome of, was his own behavior and his own sense of purpose. This particular teaching contained strong ethical overtones. One could say that it urged responsibility for one’s action, a process of claiming that strengthened the identities of individuals. Interestingly, rationality and morality came tightly trussed in the Stoic tradition.

What the Stoic dependence on logic revealed was that there was a purposeful ordering of the cosmos and by implication, suggested that that underlying order had meaning. Perceptual experience was the ultimate road to truth and knowledge, according to the Stoics. This perspective broke in tradition from earlier modes of belief that would have thrown up their hands in reaction to the prospect of trying to find a so-called “underlying order” to the world.

Stoicism, after all, was a breath of fresh, modern air relative to earlier mythical or superstitious beliefs. As a philosophical discipline, its tenants of logic and rationality were the undeniable contributors to modern science, physics, epistemology, metaphysics, etc. The idea, emergent from Stoicism, that the natural world could be interpreted and heavily analyzed was relatively new for the time. Importantly, this sort of cultural shift in thinking was a bit like man’s conquering of ever-mystifying Nature. Broadly speaking, it was something like the masculine ethos of hard-edged abstract, scientific inquiry that had prevailed over the feminine ethos of messy, turbulent Nature.

The rationality the Stoics so prized was witnessed in the envyingly placid manner in which they confronted problems. They preferred an excessively realistic and cool-headed assessment of things. When something bad happened to them, they did not try to avoid it but rather, to respond to the situation with a calm and collected cognitive approach. They advocated always finding “the truth in the matter” and in preserving a tranquility above all else.

Due to their belief in the primacy of the human mind, the Stoics maintained an adamant conviction that one’s cognitive faculties were essentially man’s salvation. They were the keys to a meaningful life and promised an airy freedom of the mind that was severed from one’s material circumstances.

Interestingly, rationality and virtue came bound together in the Stoic tradition. To the Stoics, moral goodness could be achieved by closely adhering to rationality which itself was the product of a perfectly and divinely ordered world. There is a clear, linear ordering here: Virtue stemmed from living in accordance with rational presuppositions while rationality of the mind stemmed from the seeming rationality of Nature (a new cultural concept for the time). And from this conception of virtue stemmed also the notion of duty — or the obligation one should feel to strive towards virtue at the expense of pleasure (what was a far easier and more passive endeavor).

The Stoics placed a high priority on maintaining a tranquility of the mind, on working to keep the mind cleansed of volatile emotional energies. They wanted to make human existence easier, in a sense, in a way that seemed paradoxical set alongside the simultaneous Stoic principle of asceticism — or self-denial. What the Stoics believed, however, was that this self-denial actually made one’s life easier in the long-run. Importance was placed on the idea of a meaningful life as opposed to short-term gratification. The holistic sensibilities of the Greeks likely nurtured the beginnings of this new shift into behaving for the benefit of the long-term picture.

Ancient Greece is considered to be such a great Western civilization today, with our own nation arguably being built on the back of their cultural tenants, in large part because Ancient Greece had attempted something that many civilizations before it hadn’t: they had tried to strive towards divinity, one could say, in a very broad fashion anyways. This is exemplified not only in the prevailing philosophic sentiment of the times but also in the Grecian tradition of magnificent works of art and stately architecture. Attempting to discern the meaning of life and how one could go about finding it undeniably has something to do with God — and less with the animalistic, biologic urges that had clouded earlier cultures. What was happening in Greece during this time of proliferating Stoic philosophy was a historic triumph of the brain over the body. It was a shift from the quick, base instincts of the body to the slower, more introspective cognitive faculties of the brain — a process that necessarily required patience and a conscious detachment from one’s primitive compulsions.

Epictetus also made a point of emphasizing that all things are perishable and that it is the mark of an unwise man that goes around in perpetual fear that he will lose that which he is attached to. Detachment from earthly things, then, was one of the central tenants of Stoicism, to be replaced by “attachment” to one’s mind. One of the practical disciplines that the Stoics recommended was the daily contemplation of negative events occurring. This premature, hypothetical envisioning was not the mark of pessimism, it would be argued, but rather a wise exercise to acclimate the human mind to calmly consider terrible scenarios, learning to react with cool-headed rationality. In addition, it also schooled a person in the practice of gratitude (very much a self-help maxim to this day). After all, to learn to be content with what one had rather than engaging in the apparently gruelingly pathetic practice of pining or alternatively, clinging too possessively to what one already did have, was the mark of a disciplined man.

Some might say that there was also a fatalistic element to Stoic thinking. Their collective belief that everyone ought to “live each day as if it was their last” (a refrain oft repeated in modern society) initially seems gloomy and defeatist. But on the contrary — such a recommendation is an attempt to alter one’s state of mind rather than radically altering one’s behavior. In particular, this proverb was meant to teach appreciation of the present and to warn against the dangers of becoming too clouded by the superficial preoccupations of the present to the degree that one wasn’t able to proceed with the quest of life meaning, truth, and wisdom that the ancient Stoics so advocated.

Modern Christianity shares heavy commonality with Stoicism. Consider its suppression of basic urges, the belief in a transcendent Creator and the divine order of the world, and the celebrated attainment of a sense of brotherhood. As well, Stoicism has some interesting overlaps with military ethos when one takes into account the ideals of endurance, inner strength, and self-control. Mental fortitude is inseparable from military service.

There is also evidence to suggest that modern leadership calls upon tenants of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor famous for his stalwart belief in the merits of Stoicism was an exceptionally good leader who practiced admirable restraint in regards to his political power. Such a forcefully realistic outlook on life can humble leaders and keep them grounded and self-aware and better able to command the respect of those below them. Another final contribution that Ancient Greek Stoicism has made to the larger project of the Western world is the concept of universal objectivity and reason.

Stoicism reaches far back into the historical calendar, and yet its teachings feel to our modern ears as somewhat familiar. This is because much of Stoic thought has been successfully incorporated into Western culture over the centuries. Modern Western conceptualizations of self-discipline and the primacy of the mind have their origins in the Stoic philosophy first entertained in a small Mediterranean region many hundreds of years ago, and most notably, by several modest but intellectually compelled men.

Stoicism is also a worthy philosophic choice to make use of during troubling times. Consider, for example, the era that Stoicism emerged in. Alexander the Great’s conquests and his subsequent death foreshadowed the beginning of the demise of Greece. It was a shaky, restless time characterized as a time of transition. This is the environment that Stoicism blossomed in. As a philosophy, it offered the promise of peace amid the uncertainty. And at its most base level, Stoicism is exactly this: peace while standing knee-deep in uncertainty. Somehow I don’t think this advice belongs to be frozen in history.

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Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

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