Taking a Deep Dive Into Stoicism: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus
How often do we embrace self-transcendence compared to how often we accept our own fragility and latch onto prosaic views?
This question is extremely challenging. Not only because of its innate complexity, but also because its essence can be interpreted in a plethora of ways.
What constitutes self-transcendence?
What constitutes prosaic views?
For now, let us leave these hefty questions aside and focus on the bigger picture.
Life is struggle. Life is struggle cloaked as a game.
It is cloaked as such in order to help us organize ourselves better. For humans thrive more on organization and less on abstraction. We come up with rules and laws and stages and prices in order to create a more manageable version of reality and forget the struggle that engulfs it.
We become part of a perennial game of adaptation that attempts to alleviate that struggle.
Throughout that game, we encounter different players that try to tear our inner world apart while we battle to establish balance. For balance seems to be, according to our senses, the state we seek, the state we demand, the state we desire.
Balance will always be the end goal for humankind.
It is a long and perilous journey that oscillates between chaos and boredom, but it seems that we are on the right track to reach that state.
The when is irrelevant. What is relevant, though, is the how and the why.
Now back to our questions.
What constitutes self-transcendence?
Self-transcendence is the answer to every question you might seek that is connected to your search for inner purpose and balance. Self-transcendence is the core vision every human ought to have in order to explain his or her role in this world. Whether this is manifested via a religious approach, a spiritual approach, or a materialist approach, is not of importance.
The reality that is brought to the table by our ability to keep pushing the limits of our abilities and our desire to transcend our human condition is the juice of this idea. This is the reason that the personal development movement has gained so much steam over the years and it keeps growing in an unprecedented way.
The need for every human that walks this planet to escape the fragility of this existence and become a higher consciousness being, will never fall out of fashion because it is inextricably bound to the core of our paradigm.
Philosophers, thinkers, spiritual leaders and every agent that strives to add another brick in the wall of self-transcendence is at the epicenter of this verity.
That’s why we follow them, that’s why we admire them, that’s why we listen to them. This is no joke. This is one of the biggest truths that you will ever encounter and one you should examine with enormous care.
What constitutes prosaic views?
The ultimate virtue of a person is their ability to speak the truth. The truth mainly about themselves, but also in a broader sense, the moral truth, and the scientific truth.
Morality and science are two terms that have been flirting dangerously with each other since the beginning of the scientific revolution (circa late 1500s), but never really succeeded in merging or evolving together.
There are instances of hope throughout history which indicate that we will eventually find a way to create a universal moral framework free from religion, that draws depth from scientific facts, but this framework is still in the making and it will probably take monumental events in order to be formulated.
Throughout that process, however, we are able to discover glimpses of what such a framework should look like. We are all humans and our capacity to understand right from wrong, and moral from immoral, is expressed by our ability to seek cooperation and justice from a very young age, mainly through play.
This “gift,” so to speak, allows us to build variations of play as we grow older and the rules embedded in the various “games” we create help us create a version of reality that is more manageable and more relevant to our needs.
The rules and the games are never perfect. They are just there to remind us that we need them and that we constantly have to adapt them and re-engineer them. This is the substrate of our evolution and this is what allowed our species to survive and thrive.
Unfortunately, this idea is arcane for most people. Either because of lack of proper education or because of a proclivity towards ignorance and a general rejection of truth, most people will cling to a very prosaic and oftentimes dangerous interpretation of reality that will serve only their personal short term needs.
Since the ancient times, people have been facing the ramifications of that situation and have been trying to come up with solutions to this daunting conundrum. Usually, a head on approach would result in friction and would create even more tension to the already capricious nature of our relationships. So, the wisest among us realized our limitations and proposed philosophies that would allow the thinking human to discover an intellectual solace.
One of these philosophies is stoicism.
It is a philosophy so potent that it has withstood the test of time and it has, of late, become one of the most pertinent antidotes to the lack of control we experience while we attempt to enhance most aspects of our lives.
In this article, I endeavor to immerse myself, and eventually you, to the teachings of the three most famous stoic philosophers and hopefully help you adopt a more stoic approach in your life.
Stoicism – Seneca
I will begin with Seneca because he is the stoic whose teachings have resonated the most with my worldview, but also because he is the most archaic one of the three.
Seneca lived from 4 BC to AD 65. We don’t know much about his early life. What we do know is that he served as Nero’s advisor from AD 54 to 62 and that in AD 65 he conspired against the mad Emperor. 1 The conspiracy didn’t work, Seneca was caught and he was ordered to kill himself. 2
We know Seneca chiefly from the works that are attributed to him. His focus was mainly philosophical essays and tragedies. In his creations, there is a clear attempt to empower the individual narrative through a belief in virtue, presence, patience and the embrace of human struggle as an inevitable and much-needed tenet of life.
You can take a glimpse of his philosophy from the following quotes:
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
“All cruelty springs from weakness.”
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”
“Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms — you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.”
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”
When you read Seneca, you can’t help but feel humbled and empowered at the same time. Take this simple yet profound statement for instance: All cruelty springs from weakness.
Here, Seneca hits the nail right on the head.
Weak is dangerous because usually, weakness can lead to cruelty. It is because of weakness that we engage in immoral and atrocious acts. It is because of weakness that we fail to establish a canonical set of rules in our relationships that can help them prosper. It is because of weakness that we fail to see our own weaknesses and we stay trapped in a distorted version of reality that propels us towards misery and distress.
Seneca knew that well. Most probably because he could see through Nero’s cruelty and understand that weakness is the source of it. A strong character is only cruel when cruelty is inflicted upon them. Strength of character demands resilience towards weak views, an appreciation of life, a responsibility towards people who admire you and a constant fight to achieve self-ownership.
This is what Seneca fought for and this is probably what he died for.
Stoicism – Epictetus
Epictetus was born a slave, and throughout the journey from a slave to a philosopher, he confronted all the nuances that the spectrum of his journey entailed. That is perhaps the reason his philosophy is so powerful. His experiences allowed him to live his philosophy and use it as a means for survival and prosperity.
The name Epictetus in Greek means “gained” or “acquired.” I am assuming that this was a very typical name for slaves during that time and probably a word that allowed Epictetus to experience the incessant death and rebirth of his persona through constantly gaining and acquiring more wisdom.
Epictetus lived from AD 50 to AD 135. He was released from slavery somewhen after his 18th birthday and he then began to teach philosophy in Rome. He was considered a vigorous speaker that could mesmerize his listeners and as one of his pupils pointed out in his notes: “induce his listener to feel just what Epictetus wanted him to feel.”
The gravity of his inner world is illuminated all over his postulates. Here are a few:
“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
“Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.”
One can easily see that Epictetus’ main concern was how to adopt an intellectual framework that will allow the individual to unshackle himself from the limits that our problematic relationships create.
He was a firm believer of the fact that an individual can only be free if he frees himself from his limiting beliefs and also his addiction to the opinions of others. He was one of the first to see that there is a way for one to be in control insofar as one can control only the things that are within his control.
Opinions, perceptions, views, beliefs, stories, are all manifestations of how our mind adapts to the stimuli of the environment. Sometimes they are true and sometimes they are untrue. One can’t control the extent to which truth is being spoken by others. But one can certainly control the extent to which he speaks the truth and how one reacts and perceives the truth or untruth spoken by others.
And this is an extremely valuable skill to possess.
Stoicism – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius is the Stoic Emperor. Epictetus and Seneca were philosophers and advisors. Marcus Aurelius was at the top of the dominance hierarchy and his authority exerted respect not just because of his power but also because of his philosophy.
That is something very crucial to ponder. The archetype of the emperor, as it has been portrayed throughout time, is usually that of the oppressor or the narcissist or the totalitarian. Marcus Aurelius convulses the foundations of that archetype.
He was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 and the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors. As Wikipedia cites, the term Five Good Emperors was coined by the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in 1503:
“From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.”
During his reign, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with a lot of challenging events among which are the war with the Parthian Empire, the push back of barbarian tribes, the rise of Christianity and the Antonine plague. 3
It becomes apparent that, unless you are a ruthless ruler, you can’t stay sane amongst such precarious times. Marcus Aurelius did whatever was within his power to avoid ruthless tactics as much as possible and follow a more stoic path.
He was heavily influenced by Epictetus, Rusticus, and Heraclitus and one can notice a more forward-looking and conclusive philosophy in his aphorisms:
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
There is subtle optimism and positivity encompassing his views and that’s also one of the reasons his dictums have been more popular than the rest of the Stoics. There is enough ugliness and adversity in this world to make us feel demotivated in perpetuity. Choosing not to focus on the ugliness but on the beauty and not on the adversity but on the blessings, is Marcus Aurelius’ way to battle demotivation.
Individuals can act in any way they find plausible, and this allows them to accrue benefits or suffer costs, depending on the circumstances.
The responsibility that our actions necessitate is the only true weapon we can exploit in order to antagonize the nefariousness of the world around us.
Marcus Aurelius realized the power of that weapon and that helped him become an exemplary emperor despite adversity and despite his weaknesses. That is what makes him a respectful example for all of us.
You have probably noticed that all three major Stoics lived in Rome during the first and second century AD. This was the time when the Roman Empire was at its greatest territorial extent.
I cannot say for sure how this affected the rise of stoicism, but I do know that during prosperous but at the same time turbulent times, great philosophies emerge.
There is one thing I know for sure, though: Becoming enamored with stoicism is a truly a life-shaping experience.
Stoicism is a way of life and the best way to move towards embracing a more stoic life is the strategic adoption of the right habits and practices. If you are unsure where to start, “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses” ebook provides a selection of habits and practices that can prove extremely valuable in that respect.
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And for those who prefer a more visual version of the post, you can check out my video essay on stoicism:
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