The Way of Life of the Stoic School (Stoans, Stoics) and The Importance of IgnoranceJuly 1, 2021
When people say that they are acting “philosophically” in the face of what has happened to them, they are using the word in the Stoics sense. The name “Stoic” comes from the stoa, a painted porch where these philosophers often met in Athens. The first Stoic was Zeno of Cyprus.
The early Greek Stoics had views on a wide range of philosophical problems of reality, logic, and ethics. However, they were most famous for their views on mental control. Their basic idea was that we should only worry about the things we can change. We shouldn’t have worried about other things. Like the skeptics, they aimed for a peaceful mind. Even in the face of tragic events such as the death of a loved one, a Stoic should not get carried away. While what happens to us is often beyond our control, our attitude towards it is within our control.
At the heart of Stoicism is the idea that we are responsible for our feelings and thoughts. We can choose for ourselves how we respond to good or bad luck. Some people think that their emotions are like the changing weather. Stoics, on the contrary, think that we choose our feelings about a situation or event. Emotions don’t just happen to us. Stoics believed that emotion clouded reason and undermined judgment. We should not just control them, but get rid of them entirely whenever possible.
One of the best known among the later Stoics, Epictetus, began his life as a slave. He survived many hardships, learned about hunger and pain, and remained lame after a poisonous insect bit his leg. He was describing his own experience when he said that our minds can be free even if our bodies are slaves. This was not just an abstract theory. His teaching contained practical advice on how to deal with pain and suffering. Its essence was: “Our thoughts depend on us.” This philosophy also inspired American fighter pilot James B. Stockdale, who was shot down over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Stockdale had been tortured many times and was confined to a solitary cell for four years. He managed to survive by applying what I remember from Epictetus’ teaching in a course he took during his university years. When he parachuted into enemy territory, he decided not to get caught up in that feeling, no matter how badly people treated him. He wouldn’t let the things he couldn’t change affect him. Stoicism gave him the strength to endure the pain and loneliness that would destroy most people.
This solid philosophy began in ancient Greece, but it flourished in the Roman Empire. Two important writers who helped spread the Stoic teaching were Marcus Tulius Cicero and Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The brevity of life and the inevitable old age were matters of particular concern to them. They accepted that aging is a natural process and did not try to change the unchangeable. At the same time, they believed that we should make the most of our short lives. Cicero packed a lot of work into his life: Besides being a philosopher, he was also a politician and lawyer. In his book “On Aging”, he identified four main problems brought about by old age: It was getting harder to work, the body was getting weaker, the pleasure of physical pleasures was diminishing, and death was approaching. Aging is inevitable, but as Cicero said, we can choose how we manage this process. We must realize that physical and mental decline in old age need not make life unbearable. For one thing, older people can get things done by working less, often thanks to their experience; so any work they do can be more effective. Their bodies and minds will not go into a slump if they make them work. They may also spend more time on friendship and conversation, which in themselves are invaluable, even if their physical pleasures give them less pleasure.
Finally, Cicero believed that the soul lived forever, so old people didn’t have to worry about dying. Cicero’s attitude was that we both accept the natural aging process and realize that there is no need to be pessimistic about it. Seneca, another great philosopher who popularized Stoic views, held a similar view when he wrote about the brevity of life. You rarely hear people complain about the length of life. Most of us say that life is very, very short. We have so many things to do and so little time to do them. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates, “Art is long, life is short”. Older people who can see death approaching often wish to live a few more years to achieve what they truly want in life. However, it is too late and they regret the things they could have done but could not do. In this sense, nature