Saturday, April 8, 2017

Stoicism And Our Times

Not all that long ago, a man named Frank McLynn published a biography of Marcus Aurelius.  For the most part, the author expressed admiration for his subject.  He was not as kind to certain of those individuals who surrounded the emperor, such as Marcus Cornelius Fronto, who taught him rhetoric and it seems grammar, but McLynn's dismissal of that gentleman as a fussy pedant is tolerable enough.  What I found less understandable was the author's attitude towards the philosophy to which the emperor was devoted--Stoicism.

Especially puzzling was the author's view of Epictetus, who we know Marcus admired.  McLynn refers to Epictetus as a kind of spoilsport, a party pooper; someone full of advice regarding how not to have fun.  It's no wonder, according to McLynn, that the emperor was melancholy having Epictetus as a guide or ideal.

It's strikes me as something of a marvel that someone would write a biography of Marcus Aurelius while laboring under the impression that Stoicism is a grim, dull, repressive, saddening philosophy.  But wonders never cease, to coin a phrase.  Neither, however, has Stoicism or the Meditations or Thoughts of the emperor, or the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus, though what they are remain misunderstood even by professed and professional historians.

In this Age of Instantaneous Emoting, I suppose it's to be expected that any philosophy which promotes equanimity and tranquility and the use of our reason would be seen as perverse, or perhaps dull and uninteresting at best.  And yet, strangely enough, Stoicism seems to be experiencing a surge in popularity.  That seems to be the case based on any search of the Internet, at least.  There are evidently still enough McLynns in the world to indicate the old view that Stoics are repressed, unemotional dullards is still around if it doesn't flourish.  How do we explain the growing popularity of Stoicism given the increasingly frenzied times?

First, I take it as a sign that some of us, at least, are growing tired of their own self-indulgence and particularly that of others.  We're able now to know of everything done or said or thought by everyone, but especially by those who are considered famous for one increasingly insignificant reason or another.  Also, everyone significant or otherwise is eager to tell everyone else what they do or say or think.  More and more, perhaps, we don't want to know such things or wish to remain unaffected by them.  As a result the insight that what is not in our control should be a matter of indifference to us is comforting.

Second, I think it possible that those who are religiously inclined find the dogma of traditional, institutional religions less and less appealing or less and less believable.  They've discovered that there are options available to the spiritual which don't require a belief in miracles, a creator of a vast universe with curiously human characteristics and desires, injunctions against certain kinds of sexual behavior, rules of divine origin regarding eating certain foods and wearing certain clothes, and beliefs which are incompatible with what we learn through science.  Stoicism provides such an alternative.

Third, I think the acceptance of Stoic dictums and the practice of Stoicism provides protection from the incessant deluge of negative emotions, news and conduct to which we're exposed now on a daily basis, and simultaneously a source of strength.  It allows us to keep our heads when all those around us are losing theirs.  Stoics know that they can always control themselves, regardless of the circumstances, because they know what's in their control and what is not.  They know that our lives are what our thoughts make them, and discipline themselves so that their thoughts aren't overwhelmed by dangerous emotions or desires but guided by their ruling capacity.

Our times are noisy, frightening, anxious, dangerous, disturbing, but Stoicism shows us that we need not be frightened, anxious or disturbed and can achieve that through the use of our own intelligence.  What can be more appealing in a chaotic world?

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