The philosophy of Stoicism – Massimo Pigliucci

The philosophy of Stoicism – Massimo Pigliucci

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You’ve been stranded thousands of miles from home
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with no money or possessions.
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Such a predicament would make many people despair and curse their awful fate.
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But for Zeno of Cyprus, it became the foundation of his life’s work and legacy.
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The once wealthy merchant lost everything when he was shipwrecked in Athens
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around 300 BCE.
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With not much else to do, he wandered into a book shop,
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became intrigued by reading about Socrates,
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and proceeded to seek out and study with the city’s noted philosophers.
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As Zeno began educating his own students,
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he originated the philosophy known as Stoicism,
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whose teachings of virtue, tolerance, and self-control
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have inspired generations of thinkers and leaders.
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The name Stoicism comes from the Stoa Poikile,
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the decorated public colonnade
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where Zeno and his disciples gathered for discussion.
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Today, we colloquially use the word stoic
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to mean someone who remains calm under pressure
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and avoids emotional extremes.
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But while this captures important aspects of Stoicism,
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the original philosophy was more than just an attitude.
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The Stoics believed that everything around us
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operates according to a web of cause and effect,
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resulting in a rational structure of the universe,
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which they called logos.
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And while we may not always have control over the events affecting us,
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we can have control over how we approach things.
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Rather than imagining an ideal society,
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the Stoic tries to deal with the world as it is
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while pursuing self-improvement through four cardinal virtues:
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practical wisdom,
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the ability to navigate complex situations in a logical, informed, and calm manner;
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temperance,
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the exercise of self-restraint and moderation in all aspects of life;
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justice,
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treating others with fairness even when they have done wrong;
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and courage,
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not just in extraordinary circumstances,
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but facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity.
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As Seneca, one of the most famous Roman Stoics wrote,
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“Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage.”
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But while Stoicism focuses on personal improvement,
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it’s not a self-centered philosophy.
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At a time when Roman laws considered slaves as property,
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Seneca called for their humane treatment
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and stressed that we all share the same fundamental humanity.
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Nor does Stoicism encourage passivity.
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The idea is that only people who have cultivated
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virtue and self-control in themselves can bring positive change in others.
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One of the most famous Stoic writers was also one of Rome’s greatest emperors.
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Over the course of his 19-year reign,
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Stoicism gave Marcus Aurelius the resolve to lead the Empire through two major wars,
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while dealing with the loss of many of his children.
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Centuries later, Marcus’s journals would guide and comfort Nelson Mandela
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through his 27-year imprisonment
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during his struggle for racial equality in South Africa.
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After his release and eventual victory, Mandela stressed peace and reconciliation,
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believing that while the injustices of the past couldn’t be changed,
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his people could confront them in the present
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and seek to build a better, more just future.
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Stoicism was an active school of philosophy for several centuries
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in Greece and Rome.
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As a formal institution, it faded away,
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but its influence has continued to this day.
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Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas,
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have admired and adopted its focus on the virtues,
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and there are parallels between Stoic Ataraxia, or tranquility of mind,
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and the Buddhist concept of Nirvana.
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One particularly influential Stoic was the philosopher Epictetus
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who wrote that suffering stems
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not from the events in our lives, but from our judgements about them.
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This has resonated strongly with modern psychology
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and the self-help movement.
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For example, rational emotive behavioral therapy
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focuses on changing the self-defeating attitudes
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people form about their life circumstances.
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There’s also Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.
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Informed by Frankl’s own time as a concentration camp prisoner,
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logotherapy is based on the Stoic principle
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that we can harness our will power to fill our lives with meaning,
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even in the bleakest situations.
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