Stoicism is a philosophy most popularly associated with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium at around 300 B.C. The supreme goal being “living in agreement with nature”, which implies both living in harmony with the universe in acceptance of its nature and laws and also living in agreement with ourselves, being consistent between our thoughts and actions. This allows us to flow through life smoothly and with inner peace, flourishing as individuals and fulfilling our own human nature, achieving eudaimonia, commonly referred to as “happiness”, although a better translation would be “fulfilment”.
One of Stoicism’s main misconceptions is that it may seem cold-hearted or unemotional. This is simply not the case. In the beginning of Marcus’ Meditations, he spends a whole chapter reminding himself of the most important things about the most important people in his life, his family and teachers.
Instead of studying philosophy in an abstract and theoretical way, Marcus shows the study of real-life examples of Stoicism being applied in daily life, as an art of living, that we can best grasp as the true meaning of the philosophy.
The modern Stoics often refer to the four cardinal virtues, recognised by Plato and Christianity, although they might date back even further than this. These virtues are courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom.
Virtue comes from the Latin word Virtus, which means moral excellence. The ancient Romans used this word to refer to all of the “excellent qualities of men, including physical strength, valorous conduct, and moral rectitude.” To be virtuous is excellence at being human, giving way to happiness and harmony.
Aristotle defined virtue as a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait, the point of the greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other, such as confidence between self-deprecation and vanity.
The Stoics held that virtue is the only real good and so is both necessary and sufficient for happiness.
These virtues can be understood as a way of living harmoniously with our own self, with other people and with external events in the world.
The Stoics use wisdom for living according to our true nature, justice for living harmoniously with other people as part of a community, and courage and temperance for living and embracing the fate that we are subject to, with respect to external events.
These virtues, of course, are all interrelated and overlap, one must for example have the necessary moral wisdom applied to one’s actions to act justly in relation to other people or be courageous enough to allow for self-restraint or moderation. The Stoics offered an analogy: just as someone is both a poet, an orator and a general, but is still one individual, so too the virtues are unified but apply to different spheres of action.
In this post we will be exploring the first virtue: Courage.
Courage is the opposite of the vice of cowardice. We are to bravely stand up for what we believe, facing daily challenges and struggles with no complaints all the while being a good person.
We are to strive for objectivity, since what causes human suffering is not the things in the world, but our beliefs about those things. We are to try to perceive the world as it is in itself, without the subjective colouring we automatically tend to ascribe to everything we experience
For the Stoics, courage also extends to the endurance of pain, discomfort and even death. One is to be unmoved by fear and willing to confront danger, pain, or intimidation.
Aulus Gellius tells the story of an unknown Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea.
There was a terrifying storm where the boat was in danger of sinking and the crew drowning. The Stoic teacher was frightened and turned ghastly pale, but unlike the rest he wasn’t uttering any lamentations.
After a while, the sky cleared and the sea grew calm, the Stoic teacher was approached by a man of elegant apparel who said in a bantering tone, what does this mean, sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour? – The teacher did not respond to his question and they parted ways.
However, when they were approaching land, the teacher was approached by someone else, who asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. He answered that:
Even the mind of a wise person is bound to be disturbed, and to shrink back and grow pale for a moment, not from any idea that something bad is going to happen, but because of certain swift and unconsidered movements which forestall the proper functioning of the mind and reason.
Before long, however, the wise person refuses to give his assent to these terrifying visions of the mind, but rejects them, and sees nothing in them that ought to inspire him with fear. And that is the difference, they say, between the mind of a wise person and that of a fool, that the fool thinks that the things that initially strike the mind as harsh and terrible really are such, and then, as if they are truly to be feared, goes on to approve them by his own assent, whereas one who is wise, after being briefly and superficially affected in his colour and expression, does not give his assent, but retains the consistency and firmness of the opinion that he has always had about mental visions of this kind, namely, that such things are in no way to be feared, but arouse terror only through false appearances and empty alarms.
Next up: Justice
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