Being stoical these days is not always seen as a good thing. It usually refers to someone who is coping with illness or loss or disappointment without complaint, someone who does not wear their emotions on their sleeve in times of difficulty. Often, interestingly, the adjective stoical is addressed towards the elderly, who not only have to deal with disease and death more than most, but also come from an age when trying to maintain a stable emotional façade was seen as a great strength. These days, of course, we are all encouraged to let our feelings out, to cry, to discuss, to explain, to share. It is a completely different way of looking at hardship.
The word stoical has its roots in ancient philosophy. Stoa were long colonnades, public spaces which provided shelter from the sun and rain for people to meet and to discuss matters of interest; and not least of philosophy. Teachers and intellectuals in the ancient world would gather there to converse and to share knowledge. There was in fact a particular stoa in Athens called the “Painted Stoa” where the philosophical school of the Stoics was founded by a man called Zeno of Citium. Stoicism, in common with other major ancient philosophies, sought to seek the way by which humans could achieve happiness. You may remember our friend from the New Philosopher magazine a couple of assemblies ago who went to the library for four days to find out what happiness meant, but only then realised that people had been searching for millennia. Well, the Stoics of two and a half thousand years ago were amongst them. In contrast with much philosophy, however, Stoicism sought to be a practical philosophy – it could, and still can, help to train people to live their life effectively.
The Stoics believed that man would become virtuous and ultimately happy if he could “live in accordance with nature”. In order to do so, it involves teaching oneself, through reason, supreme willpower so that one does not need to seek pleasure or fear pain, but so that one can be happy even in extreme adversity. The power of your will means that possessions are completely immaterial – it does not matter whether you are rich or poor, you can be poor and happy, as well as rich and happy in the knowledge that if you lose all your possessions, you will still be happy. It wasn’t that they had no emotion; it was more that through training and by strict reason, they found ways to develop a stoic calm even in the most awful of situations. The teaching of reason helped you to overcome emotion. In an example of how you can teach reason, Marcus Aurelius wrote the following:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”
This, in fact, seems to me to be pretty powerful. If you can use reason to overcome adversity and maintain a calm, level head, that seems extremely attractive. It is likely that this was also attractive to the early Christians. “In the beginning was the Word”, read the Chaplain, quite brilliantly I might add, last week. Well the Greek for “word”, logos, also means “reason”. It is unlikely to be a fluke.
So, living in accordance with nature, using reason to overcome adversity, not getting too carried away with life’s ups and downs: that is what the Stoics felt was a pathway to happiness: concentrating on today, and not tomorrow or yesterday. You boys are all encouraged to look to the future all the time – “what subjects will you do? What do you want to do at university? What career do you want to have?” – but in fact, if you do too much of that, you forget to enjoy the moment. I think perhaps the time when I am being most stoic in this particular sense is when I am sailing. The world stops still; I can think of nothing but being in accordance with nature, the winds, the sea, the fresh air, the waves. There is no concern for material possessions, no interest in career, no fear of failure; just the moment. It is in fact momentarily blissful. I am not sure that we should deride people for not letting out their emotion, if they have trained themselves well enough to reason with their fortune. Most of the elderly who are described today as “stoic” have had a whole life to work out their own reasonable thoughts, their own philosophy; and I hope that if I am lucky enough to reach old age then I too will enjoy a calm, inner happiness. One of the great Stoics, Epictetus, said this: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happens the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
As a note to self, I must remember to read more about Stoicism as I get older. Maybe one of you might visit me one day and remind me of this assembly.