Stoic Week 2016

Stoic Week 2016

Many thanks to my friend Eylan Ezekiel for drawing my attention to Stoic Week being run by modernstoic.com. What is ‘Stoicism’? you may ask. I’ve been reading Cicero this morning (as I would be doing anyway, Stoic Week or otherwise) who the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says saw Stoicism in the following light:

Stoicism as Cicero understood it held that the gods existed and loved human beings. Both during and after a person’s life, the gods rewarded or punished human beings according to their conduct in life. The gods had also provided human beings with the gift of reason. Since humans have this in common with the gods, but animals share our love of pleasure, the Stoics argued, as Socrates had, that the best, most virtuous, and most divine life was one lived according to reason, not according to the search for pleasure. This did not mean that humans had to shun pleasure, only that it must be enjoyed in the right way. For example, it was fine to enjoy sex, but not with another man’s wife. It was fine to enjoy wine, but not to the point of shameful drunkenness. Finally, the Stoics believed that human beings were all meant to follow natural law, which arises from reason. The natural law is also the source of all properly made human laws and communities. Because human beings share reason and the natural law, humanity as a whole can be thought of as a kind of community, and because each of us is part of a group of human beings with shared human laws, each of us is also part of a political community. This being the case, we have duties to each of these communities, and the Stoics recognized an obligation to take part in politics (so far as is possible) in order to discharge those duties. The Stoic enters politics not for public approval, wealth, or power (which are meaningless) but in order to improve the communities of which they are a part. If politics is painful, as it would often prove to be for Cicero, that’s not important. What matters is that the virtuous life requires it.

In the UK, at least, someone who is ‘stoic’ is defined as someone who endures hardship without complaint. I think this is an incomplete definition, as it doesn’t get to the nub of what’s important. For me, Stoicism is synonymous with the approach of Marcus Aurelius, who, in his Meditations, sets out his belief that:

  • we can train ourselves to fear physical and emotional pain less
  • everything is fleeting when viewed on a cosmic scale 
  • man (i.e. humanity) is the measure of all things
  • we have an obligation to ourselves, first and foremost, but also to our society
  • reason always trumps emotion

The theme of Stoic Week this year is, apparently, ‘Stoicism and Love’:

Many people mistakenly believe that Stoicism is unemotional. However, as we’ll see, the Stoics made a point of listing positive and healthy emotions experienced by what they would call the ‘ideal wise man’. In particular, love plays a fundamental role in Stoic Ethics: for example, Marcus Aurelius said that his goal was to be free from irrational passions, and yet full of love.

Appropriately, this morning’s excerpt to be reflected upon is from Marcus Aurelius:

From Maximus [I have learnt the importance of these things]: to be master of oneself and not carried this way and that; to be cheerful under all circumstances, including illness; a character with a harmonious blend of gentleness and dignity; readiness to tackle the task in hand without complaint; the confidence everyone had that whatever he said he meant and whatever he did was not done with bad intent; never to be astonished or panic-stricken, and never to be hurried or to hang back or be at a loss or downcast or cringing or on the other hand angry or suspicious; to be ready to help or forgive, and to be truthful; to give the impression of someone whose character is naturally upright rather than having undergone correction; the fact that no-one could have thought that Maximus looked down on him, or could have presumed to suppose that he was better than Maximus; and to have great personal charm. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.14

I’m looking forward to participating! You can register directly on the site, or the handbook for Stoic Week is available as a direct download here.