Thanks to newspapers the western world over having nothing actually new to cover during the shoulder season between Halloween and Christmas, we learn from them the modern codicils of an ancient philosophy.
Welcome, dear reader, to Live Like a Stoic Week, which The Globe and Mail’s John Allemang describes in his front-page piece yesterday as, “a global self-improvement experiment, starting Monday (Nov. 25), that aims to spread Stoic virtue across the virtual world.”
By “Stoic virtue”, he means what the dictionary defines as indifference to both pain and pleasure. Other synonyms that may apply include: resignation, imperturbability, fortitude, fatalism, and stolidity.
Writing in 167 AD, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius – perhaps that most famous of historical Stoics – commenced Book Two of his “Meditations” (translation by George Long) thusly:
“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.
“But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.
“For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”
That’s easy for him to say.
Still, the good folks at Exeter University in the United Kingdom think what the world needs now is more of the old boy’s stiff-upper-liplessness. These organizers of the second annual Stoic Week write sweetly on their website, “the only thing that has real value is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness.”
And that’s not all: “Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions.”
Meanwhile, heed the natural order of things: “We ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control.”
And, so, “there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not.”
Oddly enough, modern Stoicism sounds very much like a mash-up of quasi-New Age doctrines of self-actualization, positive thinking and environmentalism, right down to the “Gaia hypothesis,” which proposes (according to a Wikipedia entry) that “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.”
The question, of course, is whether any of this can do us any good. Are we humans already past the point of no return to sanity?
The problem with Stoicism is that its practice requires a disciplined and (here’s the real rub) mature mind. Be honest. Who among us can claim to own one of those? Are we not more like classic hedonists, who believed that pleasure – in our case money, cars, booze, drugs, sex, and mindless channels of electronic entertainment – was, in and of itself, the greatest good of all?
At any rate, I’ll give forbearance a whirl. After all, a week without my many indulgences isn’t an eternity.
It’ll only feel that way.