“Say to yourself at break of day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and ungrateful men. All these vices have fallen to them because they have no knowledge of good and bad.” – Opening of Book 2.
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 B. C. The Stoics believed in a law-governed orderly cosmos. One of the most central Stoic ideas is that we are all rational creatures and all citizens of a universal cosmos.
“And the end for rational creatures is this, to conform to the reason and law of the most venerable of cities and constitutions (15).”
The goal of thinking rationally is to prepare us to live within society and society’s law. Our rational capacity when employed correctly in the Stoic sense will make us better citizens and put us into better relations with other people, which will inevitably lead to good laws and a better society for everyone. It is no coincidence that this philosophy was most prominent during the Roman Empire, which had conquered numerous nations.
Many of these ideas correspond to concepts that Christianity will adopt and develop. One possible reason, then, to read the Stoics are as forerunners and contemporaries of Christian theology. Stoicism, however, was not only concerned with metaphysical assumptions about reality; in fact, it was a movement interested primarily with ethics.
The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was an adherent of Stoicism. In the first chapter of the work, Marcus lists the different lessons and attributes he acquired from different family members, friends, acquaintances, and teachers over the years.
“From my mother, piety and generosity, and to abstain not only from wrong but even from contemplating it; and the simplicity, too, of her way of life, far removed from that of the rich (3).”
The fact that he takes an entire chapter to consider the most important lessons he learned from various individuals in his life reveals him to be both a caring and thoughtful individual. How many times have you stopped to think about the specific personality traits or lessons you have acquired from not only your family members, but close friends and teachers over the years?
The piety, generosity, and simplicity of life he attributes to his mother are all central themes that Marcus will explore in more detail in later chapters. Does one need to live a life of riches to find happiness? Or is the simple life actually superior? The problem with wealth, as Marcus suggests, is that it is fleeting. Living off simple fare and having simple needs trains you to live without extravagance; rich foods and lavish dinners are unnecessary.
Embedded in the passage is a powerful ethical demand: not only should we not do wrong, but we should train ourselves to not even contemplate it. It’s not just don’t steal, but don’t even consider the possibility. Keep thoughts of wrongdoing out of your head in the first place. As Marcus suggests much wrongdoing stems from our desires. A rational creature controls his desires and thoughts.
As a dedicated reader there is always the feeling that I will die before I have read all the books I would like to read. This feeling can easily turn into its own burden, even a fear. Marcus, however, tells us that we should approach each day with the assumption that we will die today.
“Away with your books, distract yourself no longer, that is no longer permissible. But rather, as if your death were already upon you, think these thoughts: you are an old man, no longer allow this part of you to play the part of the slave, or to be drawn this way and that, like a puppet, by every uncooperative impulse, or to be discontented any longer with what is allotted to it in the present or to feel apprehension at what will be allotted time to come (10).”
In relation to my feelings about all those unread books, a person should avoid feeling discontent with what they don’t know, but rather be content with what they have managed to learn. A person should avoid getting frustrated over what isn’t in their power, but concentrate on remaining content, and focus only on those aspects of their life that they can control. A person shouldn’t be like a puppet on strings controlled by their impulses, desires, and fears, but rather they should accept their lot in life and keep a rational reign over their impulses. Life is short. The goal of one’s short life should be to use the time “to clear the fog from your mind” before we die and fade forever from the earth. We shouldn’t waste the short time being worried about other people and our failure to do all we wanted or the vicissitudes of life out of our control (like poverty or disease or death).
“Whenever you take exception to something, you have forgotten that all things come to pass in accordance with the nature of the whole, and that the wrong committed is another’s, not your own, and that everything that comes about always did and always will come about in such a way and is doing so everywhere at this present moment; and you have forgotten how close is the kinship which unites each human being to the human race as a whole, for it arises not from blood or seed but from our common share in reason (118).”
In this passage, Marcus highlights the main ideas of Stoicism:
1) All things are interconnected part of the universe governed by a divine order and being. If bad events transpire in your life, then it is because it was meant to happen or it was sheer chance. Therefore, one shouldn’t be upset when bad things happen. It is irrational to be upset with chance since its random and nothing you could’ve done would’ve changed it since you couldn’t possibly have foreseen it and there is no one to be angry at. However, it is also irrational to be upset with fate since by definition it couldn’t happen any other way.
2) All people share a kinship in their shared capacity for reason and their portion of the divine that controls the universe. Marcus is not saying all people are reasonable, but is suggesting all people at least have the natural capacity to become reasonable.
3) We only control our own actions, so we shouldn’t get upset about outside external factors. We shouldn’t get angry with other people since we can’t control their actions, but we should try to instruct them if the goal is to improve them and make them better human beings. If you performed an action that was good and get criticized for it, why should it matter to you? We should not covet ephemeral things like fame or fortune, which won’t matter once we’re dead and can cause us distress if we fail to acquire them, so better to train ourselves mentally to be without them. Even things like sickness or poor health shouldn’t disturb us, for they are things outside our power to control. Most importantly we shouldn’t fear death.
Marcus implores us not to fear death for it is a natural part of existence and nature.
“. . .if one considers death in isolation, stripping away by rational analysis all the fancies that cluster around it, one will no longer consider it to be anything other than a process of nature, and if somebody is frightened of a process of nature, he is no more than a child (13).”
We should not worry what happens to us externally (such as death, which is inevitable and natural), but rather focus forming correct judgments about the world. It is irrational to fear death because it isn’t in our power to avoid it ultimately. At best, we can postpone it; and in many instances, even that isn’t within our power.