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.

Stiff upper lip

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Keep-calm-and-carry-on.jpgThe public reaction to the death of Diana astounded me. I was not entirely alone. I remember sharing in the office our incomprehension, and disapproval of the mawkishness. We looked upon mass hysteria unmoved. And- Britain mourned, publicly, weeping in the streets, dumping flowers in huge piles, and creating a Princess Diana Memorial Garden only a few yards from my office.

When I was 16, Jane’s parents moved away as her Dad had another job, and her best friend Jackie started crying. Soon, all the girls in my year were crying, even those who had hardly known Jane. The boys and I looked on bewildered.

Ian Hislop, in his programme “Stiff Upper Lip, an emotional history of Britain”, pointed to the visible stoicism of Diana’s sons, aged 9 and 15, in her funeral procession. Private Eye mocked the mourners, but it was the moment where Britain as a whole grew more in touch with our emotions, able to perceive and express them. It was a moment of maturing. The stoicism of Keep Calm and Carry On is wonderful and necessary, but not when it means repressing emotions: I need to perceive and integrate them.

I have only created an illusion of stoicism in the past by suppressing my emotions, and I cannot suppress them any more. I doubt I ever worked at my full potential, I gave too much energy to holding those emotional reactions in check, and thought myself Worthless, only of value for what I might achieve. And anything I achieved was only to be expected, but anything which did not go my way was My Fault and Very Bad. I could not carry on that way, and while I have seen this as failure and falling away, I choose to see it as the beginnings of a better way of being. Repression was the only way I knew. but I was getting steadily worse at it, crying in the tribunal waiting room in 2004.

How do I deal with my feelings? I repress them. That was my habitual way, and is even now an instinctive way, and so I still try it sometimes; and I still feel that repression is good and the right way to behave.

I want to develop a Stoic response, conscious of the feeling, accepting and allowing it, while Carrying On- a homunculus in my torso weeps and screams while I hold her and care for her, and do what I have to do. I am practising this. I have not perfected it, yet, but I am getting better.

I have been ashamed at how much we “mention the war”. It is sixty years since, have we nothing to be proud of since then? But- we mention the war because we have a right to be proud of it, even if those who served are dead, or over 86. And, I think we seek in ourselves that stoic keeping calm and carrying on. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was never published. It was kept in case of an invasion or similar catastrophe, third in the sequence illustrated here.

Thanks to Questrix for this wonderful spiritual practice: “Gam zu l’tovah: Even this could possibly be for the good”. This is also different from suppression: I have my first reaction, but I do not cling to it, it is not the end. Similarly, STEB.