What does “being stoic” really mean? Is it someone who is indifferent, bold and courageous, and unaffected by pain and emotions? Is such a person impassive, almost robotic when faced with pleasure, pain and suffering?
As a philosophy, Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (333 – 262 BC) who used to teach at a painted colonnade called “Stoa” in Athens. It has been developed over the coming centuries by Greeks and Romans and has had an important effect on Christianity. Unlike many other movements of the time, it was practiced across social lines and boundaries, where slaves such as Epictetus (50-138 AD) and emperors like Marcus Aurelius (121-180) equally embraced this current of thought.
What are the main premises of their philosophy? One can divide them into two related assumptions about the world. Stoics believed in absolute determinism. Hence, everything that happens is and was meant to occur, and we have little, if no, influence on the outcome of events. The notions of Fate and Destiny are the two terms we use nowadays to explain this rather fatalistic view.
However, it is important to note that the Stoics believed that underneath horrible events and tragedies in life, there was a living and divine being in charge of it all. This was called the “Logos,” which was ruled by reason. The “Logos” is a rational plan meant for the benefit of each person, even though at first sight, we might believe it to be a disaster. A person that you have relied on most of your life suddenly passes away, and you feel shocked, lonely, and at a loss. It is a tragic event. But Stoics claim that it was meant to happen and that it was a “good” event in disguise because now you have to learn to be more independent and stand on your own feet.
A second concept is that one should control and even eliminate strong emotions and attachments similar to the Buddhist view. We all have to die and everything has its own end. When we over-evaluate things or people, when we have a strong attachment towards them, their loss will cause us much more unhappiness and perturbation. In other words, we cannot control or change our environment, the outside world, but we can learn how to deal with our own internal mental world.
What are the consequences, dangers and benefits of the Stoic movement then? Each time period had their own reasons for following this school. To the Romans it was appealing because it gave them the necessary courage for battle. There was en even blind faith in the fact that all is planned out and that if you were meant to die in the next battle, it was how it should be. It could not be dodged or avoided. On the other hand, it appealed to the Roman temper since they frowned upon being swayed or led astray by emotions, something they considered a feminine trait. The ideal was to have a clear head in times of distress and suffering so that one never lost control of oneself or the situation.
The Christians were more interested in the fact that one should devote their whole life to a higher purpose, God and the spreading of Christian ideals and virtues. As a result, there were a high number of martyrs during this period. For them, life on earth was only a temporary state and one of little significance compared to the never-ending afterlife in heaven. They endured torture, persecution, even horrible death with a sense of calm and an evident lack of fear.
There are, nonetheless, many dangers implicit in this view. It can create radicalism or a fundamental conviction in one's beliefs. I have always been a fan of doubt because it gives a glimpse that things are not always what we believe them to be. Doubts in moderate degrees I consider healthy and beneficial, and they can protect us from falling into fallacies. To die for a higher noble cause frightens me, especially when it comes to religious fundamentalism, whether it is the Crusades or modern-day terrorist attacks.
Another drawback is that some erroneously believe that accepting and surrendering to fate and destiny implies passivity or even laziness. Some might say, it doesn't matter whether I am proactive or simply remain idle in my life, destiny will happen anyway. There could also be a certain dangerous recklessness. I can drive home drunk and if I am meant to die, that's how it was meant to happen. These thoughts, in my opinion, do not represent Stoicism, but they are rather an escape from life, responsibility or one's duties.
To me, stoicism is a life-empowering positive philosophy for various reasons. First of all, it provides us with faith in times of distress. As we say, “everything happens for a reason,” it gives us support to come to terms with many tragic events and losses in our lives. The belief in an essentially “good” universe, God, Lord Krishna, Allah with a concrete plan for our growth helps us deal with the myriad difficulties we encounter in life.
Some might say that we are just fooling ourselves - and that might be true. Yet there is always a possibility that it is not make-believe or a foolish assumption and that there is a spiritual entity with good and beneficial intentions and that life is, as Buddhists and Christians claim, an illusion, Maya, or a “test” for moral virtue and fortitude.
How many times have we been paralyzed in the face of fear of rejection or simply have doubted our own abilities? Many times we find ourselves tangled up in negative thoughts that cripple us, that make us immobile. So many chances and life opportunities pass us by for that very same reason. Stoicism can teach us to become more courageous and confident in our approach to life by getting a grip on our emotions.
By not attaching ourselves to things, to events and beings, we can also protect ourselves. It does not mean that we do not love them or that we have no feelings for them. There is a silent acceptance that nothing lasts forever and that one day we will have to say good-bye to this cherished being or state of life. Yet throughout our lives, it is our own personal reaction to events that we can learn to control.
Some are thrown into deep depression; others toy with thoughts of suicide, while other more stoically-minded people accept it with their whole being, learn and grow from it and move on. Stoicism does not mean an escape from reality; it means facing the truth while not letting it wrestle us to the ground.
That is, I think, the strongest and most empowering contribution of stoicism to our lives, confronting adverse events, accepting pain and suffering with our heads held high and our hearts rooted in deep convictions. It may not be for everyone, but many can use it to improve their lives and to be prepared for everything else life, fate, or destiny has in store for us.