The blog, Stoicism Today, recently ran an article I wrote titled, The Stoic Love of Community. This piece was written specifically for their site, so if you'd like to read it, follow the link above. As the title suggests, I wrote about the Stoic insistence that we are social beings meant to love and support all people, everywhere.
If you want to have a richer understanding of the Stoic philosophy, it's time to read Diogenes Laertius's Book 7. Diogenes wrote The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, one of the great resources we've used to reconstruct ancient philosophical beliefs. In Book 7, Diogenes covers Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. Book 7 gives a detailed explanation of stoic thoughts on Nature, Logic, Ethics, Goodness, Virtue, the evaporation cycle, and how eyeballs work. Seriously, it gets into detail. The great thing is, Book 7 is free online and it's not an extremely long read. Diogenes provides us with unique insight into the Stoic system. Bookmark it, then read it, because the Enchiridion is not enough!
Seriously, the Enchiridion is not enough. Neither are Marcus Aurelius's Meditations or Seneca's letters. Epictetus's Handbook, as compiled by Arrian, is a Cliff Notes version of Stoicism and an incomplete one at that. It's basically the sort of thing that would be handed to First Years at Hogwarts. Here's some basics, stay out of the way of the big kids, and no you can't take Defense Against the Dark Arts yet! Epictetus's Discourses give us much more, but those lectures assume a framework of knowledge in the audience that we aren't given access to (except through Diogenes). Marcus Aurelius is journaling his personal experience as a Stoic, which is illuminating, but he's not laying out a philosophical framework. He's attempting to live within that framework. Seneca...well he has a lot of good stuff! Diogenes is a quicker, more concise read. Also, Diogenes is laying out Stoic thought simply to explain it. Whereas Seneca is presenting his own ideas; Stoicism with a flourish. So dig into Diogenes. A quick read will be helpful. A second and third pass will acquaint you with how very particular, and peculiar, Stoic thinking can be. Bonus: the natural sciences comments are a riot. One minute Stoics are correctly explaining eclipses, the next they're talking about how earthquakes are caused by underground winds. Good stuff!
- Book Seven - free for download from The University of Adelaide*
- Diogenes Laertius, Book 7 - paperback by C.D.Younge and Keith Seddon
*I replaced earlier online versions of Book 7 with the one above after it was pointed out by the Reddit user MindfulMonk. It's in a much more useful format and I'm thankful to know about it.
Stoicism is a living philosophy. We haven't ceased developing new ways to view and to practice the discipline. So, even though we are fond of a number of long dead men, we can't look only to them for guidance. A person can't simply memorize every line of ancient Stoic text and say, "That's it. I know Stoicism and there is no more to discover." This leaves Stoics with an interesting problem. If we can't appeal to authority to firmly answer what Stoicism is or is not, then what measure do we have when some new idea or practice comes along? What IS Stoic?
I'll hit you right up front with my answer. The core of Stoicism comes down to an acceptance of two maxims.
1. Virtue is the only true good (and Vice the only true evil)
2. Virtue is fully sufficient for flourishing in this life
What is the difference between a modern practicing Stoic and a person who borrows a few concepts or practices but wouldn't label themselves in the same way? Stoics accept the core dogmas of the philosophy. The whole of Stoicism rests on the virtuous life.
The first statement is the foundational ethical position of Stoicism. This is where we separate ourselves from Epicureans, Skeptics, and more modern philosophies. Epicureans, for instance, claim pleasure is a moral good. Stoics say pleasure is morally indifferent in that it can be used both in good and bad ways. Even life itself is morally indifferent within Stoicism. I believe it was Seneca who said life is neither good nor bad, it is simply the space in which the good and the bad happen. The good and the bad are found within human choices.
The second statement is derived from the first. Virtue offers us enough to flourish as a human being. This doesn't mean that virtue will bring you monetary prosperity and perfect health. It means that Stoics accept that your moral integrity is infinitely more important than such things. You can live well without money. You can live well without health. You can live well by dying. Physical things can help us out but, as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy put it, "Stoics maintain...that the only thing that always contributes to happiness, as its necessary and sufficient condition, is virtue." So what is virtue?
Virtue is the best possible state of the rational and social human mind. The ancient Stoics considered virtue to be a single principle, but also illuminated its four facets as Wisdom, Justice, Temperance, and Courage. Stoic disciplines exist to bring our mindset into agreement with virtue, so that we think, and then act, optimally as human beings. Those optimal thoughts and actions put us in the only state that can guarantee consistent happiness. Again, there's no promise that virtuous living will bring about success in the common sense of the word. Living out justice in an unjust world may bring intense struggles, for instance. Living justly is simply better regardless. The struggle is an indifferent.
I've gone further into this than I meant! I only wanted to lay out the measure that I use to decide if a point of view is stoic or not. I'm not saying that there isn't more to Stoicism than virtue, by the way. There is so much more! I'm saying that virtue is the first thing in Stoicism. When I'm presented with a new idea I look to see if it leads towards virtue, if it does not, I may find it interesting but I won't consider it Stoic.
P.S. I'm laying this out so that people understand where I'm coming from on this blog. I'm certainly not interested in declaring other people as Stoic or non-Stoic. I wouldn't want to cause a Stoa-schism! Ok. That was horrible. I am ashamed. :)