#StoicWeek: Day 6

Waves crashing on headland

Today’s reading:

Be like the headland on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me!’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

This is perhaps the layperson’s definition of Stoicism – to be imperturbable in the face of difficulties that would otherwise show an outward display of emotion. 

I often wonder what it must have been like to have been raised in ancient Sparta, a warrior society immortalised both in writing but also in films like 300. Wikipedia notes that the harshness of Spartan society began at birth, when children would be bathed in wine to see if they survived, then presented to the father. If he didn’t approve of how it looked, then the would be thrown of a cliff (an early form of eugenics). History.com gives a pithy overview of what ‘spartan’ has come to mean as a consequence of this ancient society:

The word “spartan” means self-restrained, simple, frugal and austere. The word laconic, which means pithy and concise, is derived from the Spartans, who prized brevity of speech.

I highly recommend the ‘King of Kings’ series as part of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series to find out more about this time period. It’s fascinating stuff.

Back to the original passage from Marcus Aurelius. The idea that the wise person should be moderate in their emotions is at the core of Stoic philosophy, and can be found time and time again in the work of various writers. If I had to choose just one book to take with me anywhere, it would be Baltasar Gracián’s The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence. Here’s his fifty-second maxim:

Never lose your composure. A prime aim of good sense: never lose your cool. This is proof of true character, of a perfect heart, because magnanimity is difficult to perturb. Passions are the humours of the mind and any imbalance in them unsettles good sense, and if this illness leads us to open our mouths, it will endanger our reputation. Be so in control of yourself that, whether things are going well or badly, nobody can accuse you of being perturbed and all can admire your superiority.

The exhortation in that last sentence, being constant in the face of both success and failure, is an extremely hard thing to learn. I’m trying my best to do this, but it can be hard when others, including those closest to you, expect you to respond emotionally to certain situations.

Image by Sushil Nash