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Daily RC Article 185

Stoicism Unveiled: Finding Control and Happiness in Ancient Wisdom


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The last few years have seen a flurry of interest in the work of three Roman Stoic philosophers - Seneca, tutor to the Emperor Nero, Epictetus, a former slave, and Marcus Aurelius, himself the emperor.

Stoicism holds that the key to a good, happy life is the cultivation of an excellent mental state, which the Stoics identified with virtue and being rational. The ideal life [incorporates] an attitude of calm indifference towards external events. It was founded around 300BC by Zeno, who used to teach at the site of the Painted Stoa in Athens, hence the name Stoicism.

So, what were the ideas? Two foundational principles can be found in the Handbook, a short work summarising the ideas of Epictetus. First, some things are within our control and some are not, and that much of our unhappiness is caused by thinking that we can control things that, in fact, we can’t.

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What can we control? Epictetus argues that we actually control very little. We don’t control what happens to us, or what the people around us say or do, and we can’t even fully control our own bodies. The only thing that we really control is the judgements we make about things.

This leads us to the second foundational principle; it’s not things that upset us, but how we think about things. Stuff happens. We then make judgements about what happens. Things in themselves are value-neutral, for what might seem terrible to us might be a matter of indifference to someone else, or even welcomed by others. It’s the judgements we make that introduce value into the picture, and it’s those value-judgements that generate our emotional responses. These value-judgements are the one thing over which we have complete control. The paradox of Stoicism, as Epictetus formulates it, is that we have almost no control over anything, yet at the same time we have potentially complete control over our happiness.

This might seem to understate the challenges that people face in their daily lives. How can just thinking differently help someone who is struggling to put food on their table, for instance? The Stoics didn’t shy away from this.

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Seneca knew this all too well: he suffered exile, multiple bereavements, and was ultimately forced to commit suicide by Nero. He also knew that it was all too easy to say “I’m not going to let these external things disturb me” but quite another to follow it. So, the Stoics developed a whole series of practical exercises designed to help train people to incorporate Stoic ideas into their daily lives. Seneca recommended taking stock at the end of each day. By noting his mistakes, he hoped to do better the next day.

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Marcus Aurelius … [reminded] himself each morning that he was probably going to encounter a lot of angry, stressed, impatient, ungrateful people during the coming day. By reflecting on this in advance, the hope was that he would be less likely to respond in kind. But he also reflected on the fact that these people were just the victims of their own mistaken judgements.

Here we get another paradox: no one chooses to be unhappy, stressed, angry, miserable, and yet these are in fact all the product of our judgements, the one thing within our control.

This piece delves into the resurgence of interest in Roman Stoic philosophers, particularly Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism, founded around 300 BC, advocates for cultivating an excellent mental state and maintaining calm indifference towards external events. The foundational principles, as outlined by Epictetus, emphasize distinguishing between what is within our control and what is not, and recognizing that our emotional responses are shaped by our value-laden judgments. Despite life's challenges, the Stoics developed practical exercises, such as daily reflections, to integrate these ideas into daily life, offering a paradoxical perspective on control and happiness.
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