In the last year I’ve become increasingly interested in the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. As a quick Googling will show:
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, of the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how that person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they taught that everything was rooted in nature. Later Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that, because “virtue is sufficient for happiness”, a sage was immune to misfortune.
For me it boils down to this:
- Stoicism is a philosophy for life that values behavior over theory
- People are called to “do human work” and be the best at it that they can be
- Use your power of reason to stay in harmony with this purpose
- Focus your energy on what is fully in your control (ie, your thoughts and reactions, not things themselves)
- Things not in your control can be preferred or not preferred, such as your health or wealth, but you shouldn’t attach happiness to them
- Finally: Living this virtuous life is sufficient for tranquility
There’s so many parallels to Buddhism and other eastern philosophies. In fact, that’s how I found my way to where I am. I found some parts of Zen beautiful and resonating, but so much more seemed unnecessary or arbitrary. Perhaps it is my western upbringing that ultimately lead me back to western philosophy, or perhaps it was just a natural fit.
Regardless, the value I find in it is huge.
This past Saturday I attended a conference in New York on Stoicism called Stoicon 2016. In one of the first lectures it was pointed out that we were participating in the largest gathering of stoics in the history of the world. What a powerful realization that is, and what a connection it inspires back to those ancients like Zeno, Seneca, and Epictetus.
The content was fantastic and it was incredible getting to meet so many of the people whose work I read and admire. Knowing there’s the greater community of like-minded people out there is just so reaffirming.
Of course, going to lectures that are so informative and energizing is also a fantastic way to get motivated for a bigger challenge, like this year’s Stoic Week.
Stoic Week is introduced on the Modern Stoicism website as:
Stoic Week is an annual event aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy, by applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living. It is international and takes place online: anyone can take part. Stoic Week is now in its fifth consecutive year and has grown steadily in popularity year on year. It is organized by a multi-disciplinary team called Stoicism Today.
Participants use the workbook provided to guide meditations and exercises throughout the week. These are all guided by stoic thought, reference the foundational authors’ writings, and explore techniques they espoused.
It’s day two and I’m really enjoying the experience so far. I’ll be sharing more thoughts in a retrospective at the end of the week.
Update March 6th, 2017
Did I say I’d give an update at the end of the week? Well, that certainly didn’t happen. Honestly, I wasn’t able to stick to the workbook for the entire week due to … I’m not even sure anymore. It was probably work, but I can’t say for certain. I do know that I enjoyed every bit of the effort I put in.
Since StoicCon I keep a copy of one of the stoic texts with me in my work bag. Each day–or very nearly–I try to read a little bit and use it as a meditation for that day. Meditations and the Enchiridion are my favorites for this purpose. The style of the writing works well for quick-hit meditation.