It looks like I have a story to tell you; one that has been a weight on my mind for quite some time, that finally prompted to be expressed for you.
In Athens, 3rd century B.C., there were four major schools of philosophy. In the west, Plato had his academy. In the east, Aristotle placed his Lyceum. And in the south was Diogenes and cynicism. In the north, there was – nothing. The followers of Zeno didn’t have a physical school to be in but taught in the “Stoa Poikile”; a part of a marketplace in ancient Athens. This eventually gave them the name “stoics”.
The stoics are the reason I write this letter. Or rather, to be more specific, certain aspects of stoicism that, as a consequence to your (often very good) underlying (and subconscious) assumptions, are seen as absurd and, if I’m being honest, portrayed in an absurd and incorrect way. There is even a word – stoic – that would seem like it could give us a hint of what the philosophy of stoicism is about. Contrary to stoicism though, that someone is “stoic” can easily give us the impression that someone lacks passion and compassion, that they don’t care about things, and overall lack emotions. That they stop caring so that things won’t hurt them.
In the name of accuracy, I have to say that parts of this does seem correct. Passion is, although not necessarily bad, a potential problem, and they did indeed embrace a philosophy that made it harder for external problems to phase them. But to say that they didn’t care or lacked compassion only shows that you, dear Modernity, haven’t been studious enough in your research and reading. See, compassion was a big thing for the stoics. They held an idea of a sort of determinism (something that to both of us, and to other people living in our era, seems somewhat foreign (although I will tell you, Modernity, in confidence; I do believe determinism is making its way back into the collective consciousness of the modern individual) but was more common in the time where stoicism was founded) in their metaphysics that strongly influenced their view of ethics, which is where I’d say we are located at the current issue.
This determinism, among other things, meant that we don’t have a reason to be angry about things that happens around us, because as events unfolded, there was no way it could not happen. Therefore, the only approach to take is to embrace the situation and work from it there. Although, dear Modernity (sometimes a deep sigh fills me when I think about you. But those are issues not related to the topic at hand, and I will bring them up next time we meet, as they are not of the nature easily discussed in a letter.) you will likely not be too familiar with this example either, it is nonetheless an example from your era, and might therefore fit you better. It is from the first couple of lines from the so called “Serenity prayer”, that goes as follows:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
To prevent a fruitless and extended exchange over those three lines, I beg you to for now think of this prayer not in terms of God, but as something you ask of yourself. Were I speaking to anyone other than you in particular, this would not be necessary. But because of the context you’re in, I feel compelled to add such a comment, to make sure the point of my letter comes through and don’t get stuck on what is but irrelevant details.
What this prayer (or expressed desire) talks about that correlates so well with the stoic philosophy is the approach to things that is outside of our control; for a stoic, you could say that they are not worth losing any sleep over. This applies to other people as well, of course (this shouldn’t be news to you, your parents and grandparents (and so on) were well aware that a general philosophy cannot be agent-specific. And you, to your credit, doesn’t seem to have forgotten this either). And as such, as this prayer and stoic principle is applied to other people, especially in combination with the sense of determinism that follows the philosophy, we cannot avoid having compassion for other people; to feel anger towards them doesn’t serve a purpose, and in addition, they cannot be blamed for acting the way they did; it was a consequence of the situation they found themselves in, combined with their character and virtues (which were built through earlier situations, etc.). Compassion then, could be seen as a necessity of stoicism, rather than something that it lacks.
Now for the part of this letter that will release the greatest weight from my mind; that of the idea that the Stoic (upper-case Stoic here, as I refer to a follower of the philosophy rather than the conventional use of the word. Please accept this way of phrasing it, as I have no other way to conveniently and seamlessly do it in writing) will stop caring about things in order not to be hurt by external events, out of his or her control. This too, just like compassion, has its root in actual stoic philosophy, but has, and I regret to say this, been distorted as an effect of your underlying assumptions, dear Modernity. But fear not, I think with a discussion around the topic, something that I hope to achieve through this letter, we can deal with and resolve this issue.
See, there are parts of stoicism that would make you think the philosophy is centred around an abolishment of any kind of care. There is one prominent aspect that we in retrospect often call “Memento Mori”; remember that you are mortal. It’s the idea that our life is borrowed; not something that we truly own, and that it can be taken from us at any moment. One stoic talked in a similar manner about our children (although I do think there was disagreement about this, if I’m not mistaken); that they are but borrowed and could be taken back at any moment. This, contrary to how it seems in your specific era, doesn’t mean that the Stoics thought we shouldn’t care about such things like our lives or the lives of our children. Merely that our lives will be taken at some point, and that, rather than being something we should walk around in fear of during the time we are here, is something that we should accept and embrace, and in knowing that make the most of the time we are given.
It is then not about repressing any care about things that make the Stoic resilient to external influence and chaos, but an awareness of temporary and frail our image of reality is, and that we cannot control that which is external to ourselves.
Dear Modernity. I realise this is by no means an extensive description of the entirety of the philosophy that is Stoicism, or the philosophy of the marketplace, but I do hope that it can be of help to correct some of the assumptions often made regarding the topic. If you so choose, I will gladly spend more time discussing this philosophy and its place in your era when we meet; as it would be far too extensive to do in an additional letter. If you do have questions regarding the very issue I brought up here though, I encourage you to send me a letter in response, and I will do my best to clarify that which was too vague, as always.