Stoics

File:Bust of Zeno-MGR Lyon-IMG 9752.jpgReading Marcus Aurelius, I see the Stoics as finding a way of accepting the vicissitudes of the world, keeping calm and carrying on- the writer of Ecclesiastes seems stoic in parts- but Bertrand Russell explains their mystical doctrines.

The course of nature was designed by beneficent Providence- Zeus, or God- to secure the good of humanity by natural means. Some animals are good to eat, some animals are a test of courage, even bed-bugs serve the purpose of preventing us lying in bed too long. Zeno, a Phoenician who admired Socrates’ courage in the face of death, valued virtue before all, and took a common-sense view of matter: it is real, solid, and has an existence apart from my perception of it. The world is in an endless series of cycles- formed of fire, it will end in conflagration, only to be reformed. Everything that has happened before will happen again, endlessly.

God is the soul of the World, and each of us contains a part of the divine fire. This idea which Quakers are so proud of, “That of God in every one”, also appears in Ancient Egyptian thought, netjer imi.k, the God who is in you.

Stoicism is a doctrine of acceptance of all circumstances. As Virtue is the only good, a Will aligned with natural law or God’s plan, external File:Marcus Aurelius (Hermitage).jpgcircumstances do not matter: the virtuous man in prison is free, the wicked follow God’s law involuntarily, like a dog tied to a cart. Health, happiness and possessions are of no account- vanity, and a chasing after wind.

It could be seen as a counsel of despair. Of course I seek control over my circumstances, my possessions and relationships, but for the stoic these desires miss the point: I can only be the Master of my Fate if I value virtue before everything, as nothing can deprive me of it, but circumstances can deprive me of anything else. Last night Quakers discussed how accumulated possessions can be a burden rather than a blessing, just stuff to store or carry around: the thought I might use it in the future is an illusion. Learn to enjoy things without owning them, writes Richard J Foster.

As with Christian doctrine, this makes sense to me when I judge myself and my own actions, but none when I apply it to others. If virtue is the only Good, if God were beneficent, God would seek to make all people virtuous. Yet it appears that many people are not virtuous. However it points to what I might do, which is good for me: accept all situations, and try to do right in them, for self-respect is the only thing I might possess.

I go back to that bed-bug. The stoic values it for getting him out of bed even if its bite is painful. But when his child dies, he accepts his loss. He rejects the passions, because feeling gets in the way of virtue. But for me, feeling is the well-spring of my virtue: fellow-feeling for others, and a desire to make the world better.

Taken almost entirely from Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy.

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