I discovered Stoicism roughly a year ago and became a convert. I am amazed and vexed that I cannot remember what led me to search on Amazon.com for a book on Stoicism. I do know that only after I read several books on the philosophy did I discover that John Keats (one of my household gods) was a natural or accidental Stoic (or so I believe and have endeavored to establish in my essay “the Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” which is a static post on this blog). Why was I, someone who was interested in developing a personal philosophy, unaware of Stoicism as a working philosophy that offers a plan for living?
I knew of Humanism, and I would say that I agreed with the ideas embodied in that term; however, no Humanistic notion gave me a way to approach life on a daily basis. I could agree with Existentialism, although only up to a certain point. It made sense to me that I was responsible and was defined by my actions (for the most part) and I was in the existential camp when it came to god. But again, how did any of those ideas provide a basis for a life free of torment from forces without and within, large and small? Likewise, I found little to shape my life in nihilism, Epicureanism, or hedonism. Where was Stoicism all those years when my personal philosophy consisted of only two precepts (regret nothing, and everything is an end in itself)–when I was adrift in highs and lows, self-indulgent of feeling, victim to the whims of the external world, targeting my “fair share” of joy, and regaling in (yet suffering from) excess?
As an answer, I learned through the books that I have cited below that Stoics became extinct when their niche was taken over by a fitter survivor, Christianity. Stoicism could not compete with a happy eternal life and a caring god. Actually, it is not right to call it extinct, since, like a few tribesman who survive an invasion and marry with the victors, some Stoic ideas fit into Christianity and survived until it could be more thoroughly unearthed from the rubble of a fallen Rome. It is still, though, a rather exotic and rarely spotted creature.
I mentioned hedonism, above, as one of my rejected philosophical schemes. One present-day Stoic, Dr. William Irvine, who wrote “A Guide to the Good Life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy,” described his orientation before his Stoic conversion as one of enlightened hedonism. That seems an apt description for the American of today who places a high value on “enjoyment,” believes contentedness comes from pleasure and external success, and that one’s feelings are to be indulged and fostered. I highly recommend this book for the basics of Stoicism and to see how one person has used Stoicism for a path in life. I have a high regard for Dr. Irvine, which could only have increased if he had read my paper on John Keats, which I had sent to him, believing that one Stoic would like to make the acquaintance of another, especially such a poetic and brilliant one (I am referring to Keats there, not myself, ha!) I felt that Keats’s endorsement would benefit the philosophy of Stoicism, but then I am a Keats worshiper and apparently Dr. Irvine has not yet had the pleasure of knowing Keats.
While I am on the subject of recommending books on Stoicism, there are two others, and then really, you will be all set in developing your own brand of Stoic thought: The Letters and Essays of Seneca, translated by Moses Haddas, and The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius. Now, please remember, there is no dogma; reason is your guide and you appropriate what makes sense—Reason is all.
I will restrain myself from ending with a testimonial; obviously I feel that I have benefitted from learning some Stoic ideas and trying to keep them in mind through the vicissitudes of life. As John Keats wrote, “Now you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, or, really, how should I be able to live.” Amen