The Accidental Stoics

Within a few pages of a section of the Sunday New York Times, I came upon two personal accounts focused on essential Stoic ideas.  One young man, who had achieved great wealth, discovered the joy of living simply and without the weight of material goods; the other, a woman who gave up her career stated that she learned “to appreciate life” and “to be grateful for the life I had”.  She ended her piece by stating: “Whatever advice I can give about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.”

I wrote a previous post about a couple of Stoic ideas that seem familiar to most if not all of us that have surfaced in AA meetings and self-help books.  Here we have two individuals who have come upon Ancient Roman ideas and are voicing them as note worth and revelatory—surprising and new.  Perhaps every generation needs a restatement of certain core ideas.  It reminds me of every generation producing and reading its own biography of a historic or literary figure about whom biographies have never been wanting.  Every era has its own take on the person.  With these ideas, though, the most surprising thing is how they echo the past—how little there is new.

As for our wealthy fellow who discovered the joys of scaling back on his lifestyle to achieve simplicity, I am reminded of Seneca’s warnings about the excesses of wealth and his praise of simplicity in lifestyle.  He called property “the greatest source of affliction to humanity.”  He proceeded to recount anecdotes illustrating how great wealth did not bring happiness, and urged that we be content with thrift: “We must habituate ourselves to reject ostentation and value things by their utility, not by their trappings.”  He continued to link the idea of moderation in lifestyle to another core idea, the importance of self-reliance; he stated that we should make it our business “to get our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune.”

Regarding the woman who left Wall Street, I honestly have to wonder if maybe she has read Seneca—not that she need credit him because ideas are free commodities that we can all appropriate.  Seneca wrote repeatedly in the following vein: “Many fine people have abandoned all their encumbrances, have renounced riches and business and pleasure, and have made it their one object, during the remainder of their span, to learn to live.”  Further, he stated: “Experts in other disciplines are numerous and common but the science of living requires a whole lifetime.”

I have not focused in my posts on those two basic Stoic ideas: moderation in lifestyle and putting aside a career to study life.  On the latter, I do have time to study life.  I think a lot of people do and a lot of the demands that purportedly prevent people from doing it amount to what Seneca calls “idle busyness”: wasting time in frivolous, unenriching, and trivial pursuits.  Regarding the first (an excessive lifestyle)–for me it isn’t really a problem since it requires great wealth.  If I consider the issue, though, I would of course agree that wealth does not necessarily lead to tranquility; I am not certain, however, that the reverse is true, necessarily.  Seneca, by the way was a very wealthy man, although he did have to give it all up, and did so without a whimper, when he was sent into exile.

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