Putting Stoicism Back Together Again

Whatever happened to Roman Stoicism, the practical scheme for living a tranquil life that formed the backbone of the Roman Empire? It was a malleable, yet cohesive, philosophical school that began with Socrates in Ancient Greece and reached its clearest articulation in the essays and letters of the Roman writer, statesman and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC –Ad 65).  It seems to have survived only as an adjective with a not all-together positive connotation. However, in fact Stoicism lives, just in a fragmented state, as evidenced by glancing at the media. In particular, inadvertent Stoicism appeared recently in New York Times articles and a documentary aired on HBO.

A few weeks ago, glancing at the pages of the Sunday New York Times, I came upon two personal accounts demonstrating essential Stoic ideas.  One 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 summed up her wisdom as follows: “Whatever advice I can give about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.”

Here are two individuals who have come upon Ancient Stoic ideas and are voicing them as noteworthy and revelatory, even 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.

Regarding the wealthy man 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.”

As for the woman who left Wall Street, I honestly have to wonder if maybe she has read Seneca because she so precisely echoes his words (not that she need credit him because, as Seneca said, 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.”

More recently, occupying a section of the front page of the New York Times was a piece on “death cafes”— groups of people meeting in a café or diner to discuss death from practical and philosophical perspectives.  Meeting to discuss any single, given topic would not command such attention—think about groups of new parents to discuss child- raising, the PTA groups, or bible study groups. The surprise and novelty of the meetings arises from the topic– death, which our society apparently does not consider discussion-worthy or the topic for passing a convivial hour or two. These death café goers have stumbled upon a Stoic notion: to keep death in mind, indeed, study death.

In the Stoic view, death establishes perspective as no other notion can. Seneca describes in an essay how life is not short at all if one lives life fully and points out that the way to do that is to keep death in mind.  If you live like you will live forever, you are far more likely to fritter away your time and be left feeling that life was too short or unfulfilled.  Secondly, the reality of death fosters deeper, closer, and more patient and loving ties with our loved ones:  it is axiomatic if you think about it in this way—if you knew that your child would not live out the month, how would you act towards him?  That would pertain to many relationships and no doubt make you more appreciative of your relationships and a kinder person.  However, one might ask: is it really possible to go around imagining that each time you see a loved one it could be the last?  A thought does not take much effort, is free, and quiet– so, yes, the thought is not too burdensome.  But, is it a foolish thought, such as any number of notions that we could entertain throughout the day?  It is far from foolish when you consider parents who have sent their children to school only to have them gunned down and movie-goers who have died in the rapid rattle of the semi-automatic; add to that, natural disasters, illness, and the risks that we accept from trains, planes and automobiles.  A basic Stoic idea: what can happen to someone can happen to you.  Last argument in favor of entertaining thoughts of death: even if you play the odds and think how unlikely it is that you and your loved ones will die soon, if you were to nonetheless focus on death, you stand a great chance of valuing life and acting like a better person. In addition to defeating procrastination and making us cherish loved ones, death, when contemplated, gives us an appreciation for our own paltry existence; truly one’s life is terminable.  Or–if things are really bad, then death is a huge relief. In support of that positive take on death, try to imagine immortality.  At that juncture, one remembers the poem by Swinburne: “We thank with brief thanksgiving / whatever gods may be/ that no life lives forever / that dead men rise up never / and that even the weariest river / runs somewhere safe to sea.”

Last in Stoic sightings, a documentary on Ethel Kennedy (and unavoidably in large part about Bobby Kennedy), made and narrated by his posthumous daughter Rory, brought to light, without the least intent to do so, one of Seneca’s greatest and nearly unique consolatory thoughts in dealing with grief (an emotion that even he had to admit as stubborn in yielding to reason.) Seneca advised his grieving mother to take recourse to the liberal arts—basically reading poets and studying were the way to achieve the perspective on death that would bring solace. How did this notion surface in the television program? The Kennedys are almost synonymous with personal tragedy, and Ethel (although she married into the Kennedy curse) suffered many profound losses. Her parents both died in a plane crash while she was young. The death of her brother-in-law Jack was a loss not only as her relative and the beloved president, but also was a huge vicarious loss through her husband, Bobby, for whom Jack was the right and left arm; the film made clear to me the degree to which Jack paved the way for Bobby.  Ethel would later lose two sons, one to drugs the other to a reckless accident. In response to all the loss, a subject to which Rory devotes a substantial amount of time, she comments on the support of religion and lingers over images of her mother, Ethel kneeling in worship and lighting candles.  At one point, Ethel states that she is sure that all the departed are “up there” happy together.

On the other hand, when Bobby loses Jack—his beloved brother, his livelihood, his inspiration, his confident, his political base of support and more—he takes to reading poetry.  Where was his Catholic faith?  Rory of course could not interview him to see if he refers to anyone being happy in heaven, but she makes a large point of relating that in his grief he withdrew and read Aeschylus. Even when we see Bobby comforting a crowd of African-Americans upon informing them of the death of Martin Luther King, he quotes Aeschylus. I did not get the sense that the filmmaker was making any tacit statement about her father’s loss of faith, yet clearly, if he isn’t kneeling and lighting candles, but reading Greek poets, then res ipsa loquitur. Bobby apparently came upon the same advice that the Stoics offer –have recourse to pursuits of the mind, particularly of the literary kind–or had he read Seneca?

Moderation in lifestyle, putting aside a career to study life, keeping death in mind, and having recourse to literature –can I justly claim those precepts as essentially or originally Stoic ideas?  Not only are they plainly and clearly discussed by Seneca as essential to the Stoic plan, but also they do not jointly form a fundamental part any other philosophical system. These elements are necessary to Stoicism, but of course there are more tenants: the importance of reason and using reason over emotion, accepting what we have no control over (in particular the past and the future) and not pointlessly dwelling on such matters. What I find as probably the most important and certainly liminal notion is that we are all charged with developing our own philosophy. As Seneca exhorted his friends—don’t remain a subaltern to others. There is no monopoly on ideas– appropriate those that ring true and create. We are all philosophers with study. The point of identifying the skeins of Stoic thought that have been woven into the fabric of so many half-fitting approaches is to remake the whole cloth that has as much use and value today as in Ancient Rome to fit us with tranquility, a state better for ourselves and more agreeable to those who deal with us.



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