I don’t know if I could describe myself as a Stoic in an orthodox sense, but Stoicism is definitely the faith / philosophy that has had the biggest and most beneficial influence over my life.
Stoicism originated in ancient Greece in around 400BC. Stoics themselves considered their founding father to be Diogenes the Cynic, this strange philosopher-tramp who lived in a barrel in Athens in the time of Plato, and tried to get people to live according to nature rather than according to the conventions of civilization. If you wanted a pithy definition of the Stoic ethos, it would be ‘going with the flow of Nature’.
This might sound a fairly mellow way to live, but actually, going with the flow of nature is tougher than it sounds.
Nature, as the Greeks well knew, is a two-faced goddess. She can be a nurturing, life-giving mother. Or she can be a cruel and destructive bitch.
The problem with civilization is that it loves one of nature’s faces, and is terrified of the other. It takes some parts of nature and deems them desirable or ‘good’. Thus we deem youth, health, wealth, success, beauty, popularity and fame to be ‘good’, and we exert a huge amount of energy to try to achieve these states.
On the other hand, we deem old age, sickness, poverty, ugliness, failure, unpopularity or ignominy to be ‘bad’ or even awful, and spend an enormous amount of energy trying to avoid these states.
But the nature of nature is change. Stoics like to quote the philosopher Heraclitus, who asserted that the universe was in constant flux, with things constantly turning into their opposites. Nature is constantly shifting, and we can’t control it, try as we might. It’s no respecter of our civilized preferences, and is likely to bring us not just the things we consider good – sunshine, youth, life, beauty etc – but also the things we consider bad – rain, old age, sickness etc.
But we can’t accept these ‘bad’ things. They terrify us. We try to protect ourselves from the wrath of nature with all the tools of our civilization – with houses and cars and hospitals and banks and plastic surgeons. But we’re still terrified of the dark side of nature hitting us, and the threat of it fills us with panic, anxiety, dread.
And if ‘bad’ things actually occur to us, we find ourselves plunged into depression and shame. We make our lives hell, worrying about not being successful enough, or not having enough friends, or growing old, or getting sick. If we’re not worrying about the future, we’re ruminating over the past.
According to Stoicism, when we cannot accept something that has happened to us or which might happen to us, we turn ourselves into exiles from nature. We shut ourselves off from the flow, refuse to accept it, make ourselves miserable over it. We no longer live in the present, but ruminate over the past or fret over the future. We feel like we are disconnected, withered, cut off from the vitality of the world.
Stoicism tries to help us become re-integrated with nature. It tries to teach us that what is making us miserable is not the external event that bothers us, such as getting fired or getting old, but our opinion about that event, for example, that it is terrible and unacceptable to be fired or to get old. We have to dismantle these conventional beliefs, and learn to accept that things conventionally deemed awful are not really so catastrophic, and are just part of the flow of nature.
This is hard. Our conventional beliefs are deeply rooted in us. They are the inheritance of millennia of evolution. They are drummed into us by our parents and our society, which tells us that external success is everything, popularity is everything, beauty is everything, and the opposite of these things are awful.
But with practice, you can stand up to these beliefs, you can dismantle them. Each time you stand up to them and resist their pull on you, they become less powerful. Giving up a habitual belief is like giving up smoking.
Stoics approach each situation as an opportunity to overcome their conventional beliefs, and become more free, more in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature.
And this doesn’t just mean you accept that your life is terrible. Because the remarkable thing about acceptance is, when you accept an external situation, you transform the negative emotions that it previously provoked in you. You dissipate the panic or the depression, you feel a wonderful peace and serenity, and feel yourself to be re-connected to nature, re-connected to the world and to other people.
This movement, from miserable disconnection and alienation from nature, to acceptance, re-integration and regeneration, is the basic movement of almost all religions and faiths.
What is beautiful about Stoicism is it provides you with a clear, rational and practical way to follow that path back from disconnection to reconnection with nature.