Important developments in political thinking and practice took place under the Hellenistic kingdoms that supplanted Macedon in its suzerainty over the formerly independent Greek city-states. These included, for example, a genre of rhetorical letters addressed to rulers, and the important analysis of Greek and Roman constitutional change by the second-century Greek historian Polybius Hahm As kingships flourished among the Hellenistic kingdoms until they in turn came under Roman rule, not only the value of political participation, but also the proper domains of politics, were widely debated.
Different authors would orient themselves respectively to still-surviving polis communities and the various leagues which united many of them in the Hellenistic period; to the kingdoms mentioned above; to the Roman constitution, and eventually to the special forms of imperial power which eventually arose therein; and in more philosophical terms, to the cosmos as a whole and all rational beings within it. In addition to the major movements of Epicureanism and Stoicism treated separately below, other schools also persisted and arose in this period.
Those persisting included the Platonic Academy transformed in a skeptical direction and the Aristotelian Lyceum the Peripatetic School. Newcomers, albeit tracing themselves to their own understanding of the figure of Socrates, included the Cynics and the Pyrrhonist skeptics, and we focus on these latter two here. While this generally led them to advocate what might be considered more an anti-politics than a politics, a provocative statement by their founder Diogenes of Sinope c.
Yet the Cynics also manifested some parallels with the Epicureans and even with the skeptics. See the entry on Pyrrho. See the entry on ancient skepticism. BCE sophists. The greatest utility is that of tranquility or security, which is the naturally desired end or goal. For Epicureans, the city serves a legitimate and necessary function in ensuring security. But this does not mean that an active public life is also normally the most rational path to security.
On the contrary, while many people will be attracted to the possible fortune and glory of such a life, and while cities need such people, the Epicurean sage will on the whole refrain from active political participation for discussion of texts, including some exceptions, both in Lucretius and other evidence, see Fowler Instead the insecurities of life are best met by the formation of a community of friends living together and sharing their lives.
Whatever the theoretical conundrum, it did not prevent a number of Epicureans from undertaking such risky public service, among them more than one of the assassins of Julius Caesar Sedley ; Fowler discusses a wide range of Roman Epicurean attitudes. A more modest but still striking example of Epicurean public service is the huge portico inscribed with Epicurean sayings and exegesis in second-century Oenoanda in modern-day Turkey by one Diogenes of that city Smith , Whether or not his fellow citizens appreciated the instruction, modern archaeologists and philosophers are grateful for this unparalleled source of knowledge of Epicurean philosophy.
To be sure, the polity in question was invariably figured as a city, according to the account given in Dio Chrysostom But which people?
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Whether the members of this city were to be all humans together with the gods, or only human sages and the gods, and whether the city is to be envisaged as a distinct foundation or as identical with the cosmos, has much exercised both Stoic thinkers and subsequent interpreters. And which law?
How does or should the law of a particular city relate to the natural law? These questions are canvassed further as this section unfolds. Both Zeno and Chrysippus wrote works in the Platonic genre entitled Republic , neither of which survives in full. So too, reportedly, had Diogenes the Cynic. His portrait of the republic combines the Stoic idea of a natural law by which human conduct is harmonized with cosmic order, with a classical vision of politics in which a Platonic ideal of friendship through communist and sexual bonding more erotic than familial for Zeno persists following Schofield 22— Yet, in keeping with some tendencies in Platonism and Cynicism, such law might have to be radically different from existing laws if it is to be in full conformity with nature and reason.
Especially for the early Stoics, existing cities remained an accepted arena both for political action in practice—Stoic sages and scholars advising kings and serving in offices SVF 3. Yet the role of natural law already in the early Stoics, and certainly in later ones, came to support an alternative horizon for politics on the scale of the cosmos as a whole Laurand Meanwhile, in the years of the Roman republic, certain affinities between Stoic and republican ideas proved significant, as we shall now see.
Roman aristocrats were especially attracted to the Stoic willingness to countenance the kingly and political lives alongside the scholarly one as equally preferable SVF 3. They began to study the Stoa seriously from the late second century BCE. The affinity between Stoicism and Roman republicanism was enhanced by the second-century Stoic teacher Panaetius, who seems to have argued that the Roman mos maiorum or ancient ways and customs were the best form of government, so burnishing philosophical principle with the ancestral piety dear to the Romans.
Other Romans were strongly attracted to Epicureanism or to Cynicism, and some of these, however paradoxically, likewise played significant roles in political life. Thus the distinctive lineaments of the Roman republic, now to be described, were debated and interpreted by the philosophically minded in terms of Greek political theory. While the founders of the city of Rome were said to be the legendary twins Romulus and Remus, Romans would come to identify the origins of their distinctive liberty in the killing of a tyrannical king, generally dated in BCE, by the ancestor of the Junius Brutus who would eventually kill Julius Caesar.
The position of king was replaced by two annually elected consuls, the royal council became the Senate, and popular assemblies were established to elect magistrates and pass the laws they proposed. An influential account of Rome as such a mixed constitution, in this case combining the three classical regime forms of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, had already been given by the Greek historian Polybius, who referred to the distinction between the characteristic powers in each kind of regime and their mutual checking and balancing Histories 6.
Whereas in Polybius the achievement of balance between the different powers was portrayed as resulting from mutual rivalrous self-assertion, Cicero would refer to it in more harmonious language, a form of balancing compensatio , De rep. Atkins For a useful overview of Roman political thought, see J. According to Polybius, each element of the constitution exercised a distinctive form of power. The elected consuls wielded imperium , a form of executive command; the Senate enjoyed the power to deliberate and consent to specific policies; and the popular assemblies served as the source of authoritative law, also electing the magistrates, including the popular tribunes who in turn exercised veto powers over the Senate.
The perennial Greek contest between oligarchs and democrats had been tamed in Rome to allow a recognized security of role for the Senate, a group drawn from no lower than the minor ranks of aristocracy and typically rewarding birth as well as the merit that had been gained and expressed in election to high political offices. Yet the tumultuous personal quest for office and influence led many aristocrats to seek support among the people, sometimes with radical measures of land reform which Cicero, among others, would resolutely oppose. He rose to the office of consul and the lifetime Senatorial membership it subsequently conferred by his audacious wit as a lawyer and orator in public prosecutions.
His greatest moment as consul in 63 BCE came in exposing a conspiracy by Catiline; the brutal suppression of the conspiracy by executing Roman citizens without trial, however, would tar his political legacy. He became an enemy of Julius Caesar though accepting a pardon from him at the end of a stretch of civil wars in 47 BCE , seeing the assertion of power first by Caesar and then Marc Antony as fatal to the republic. Having defended in his De officiis the kind of tyrannicide that he took the killing of Caesar in 44 BCE to have constituted, and attacked Antony mercilessly in his series of fourteen Philippics the following year, Cicero was murdered in response by partisans of the then-ruling Triumvirate to which Antony belonged.
One was the Bible, and the other was the works of Cicero. While his philosophical writings—composed for the most part as a student of philosophy in Rome and Athens, and then in a brief period 46—44 BCE when political developments led him to retreat from active public life — cover a wide range of topics, including for example, among those especially relevant to politics are two works on the political role of the orator and the nature of oratory or rhetoric, celebrating the moral purposes of the orator as essential to the success of republican government. In particular, Cicero emphasized the Stoic themes of the natural affinity for society and the existence of natural law.
At the same time, Platonic themes and models were also important in his political writings. De re publica was composed by Cicero between 54 and 51 BCE, a turbulent period of strife in Roman politics. Its dramatic setting is in BCE during the crisis caused by Tiberius Gracchus, a consul who had championed a property redistribution law for the people and whom members of the Senate had violently suppressed as a putative threat to Roman civil order. Framed as a dialogue between Scipio Aemilianus, a hero of the resistance against Tiberius Gracchus and his like-minded brother, and several others of his actual contemporaries, the dialogue has a discernible structure identified by E.
It followed too that just as Plato denied the title of a single unified regime to the imperfect regimes torn by civil discord, so Cicero inferred that a corrupt regime was not strictly speaking a res publica at all III. The role of the statesman rector rei publicae is to aim at the happiness of the citizens, defined in a laxer way than most Greek philosophers would allow, as wealth, true glory, and virtue all combined.
This includes rule of the best over the weakest for the benefit of the latter III. The dream describes the divine order which not only rewards humans for just service to their city VI. What fame can you achieve in what men say, or what glory can you achieve that is worth seeking? As Jed W. Probably begun after De re publica , it was likewise written in the years immediately before 51 BCE, and similarly survives only in piecemeal and fragmentary form.
Such iniquitous laws as those passed by tyrants are not just I. As these prescriptions, and the circumstances of their writing a temporary retreat from active politics , suggest, Cicero had a complex attitude to the Greek dilemma posing the lives of philosophy and of politics as opposed alternatives. He saw philosophy as a source of insight and perspective relevant to politics, but after his early studies, devoted himself to it primarily when temporarily debarred from more active pursuits.
One might say that philosophy became, beyond its intrinsic value, a form of alternative public service when the forum was too dangerous for him to enter here following the reflection along these lines offered by Baraz This dictum of A. Long holds true not only in the sense that for Cicero, as for Plato and Aristotle, ethics was inseparable from politics. Book I treats what is virtuous, or honestas ; Book II treats what is advantageous, or utilitas ; and Book III considers cases to show that any apparent conflict is illusory. The most difficult case to resolve according to the overall argument of the book is that of advantage when understood as political ambition, driven by greatness of spirit.
Similar casuistry enables Cicero to resolve in accordance with his thesis a range of common cases where advantage might be sought at the expense of justice in administering the estate of an orphan, for example, a common duty of eminent Romans. As in Plato, a redefinition of the virtues plays a crucial role in the overall argument for the benefits of justice. For Cicero, the virtues are Romanized as officia , understood not only as duties in the abstract but rather as obligations of role or relationship, each attaching to someone in virtue of a distinct persona whether as father, consul, neighbor, and so on, or simply as a human being.
Four principal virtues are identified: wisdom; justice, resting on fides good faith and credit and respect for property; greatness of spirit; and decorum. Strikingly, whereas tyrannicide might appear to be a difficult case for such an ethical code to confront, Cicero presents it — writing later in the year that Caesar was assassinated—as the straightforwardly ethically correct choice.
Cicero couches his case in Stoic terms of naturalness and fellowship Dyck , ad loc. His pivotal move is to deny that tyrants are party to the otherwise universal nature of human fellowship. In this period, Stoicism continued to exercise an important hold, drawing in part on the Hellenistic genre of advice to kings; Platonism too, and forms of Pythagoreanism, regained much sway. Moreover, a number of Stoic-minded writers and orators played their parts in Roman political life, some fashioning the life of a philosopher itself into a distinctive form of what might be called non-political politics Trapp In this article, I cannot explore the full ramifications of these philosophical developments under the Empire, in writers in Greek as well as in Latin, and influencing not only pagan but also Jewish and Christian thinkers.
The article also leaves aside the many and varied important contributions to political thought in Rome and its possessions made not by philosophers but by historians, including Livy, Sallust, Diodorus Siculus, Tacitus, and Suetonius. Again, for an overview that seeks to integrate political and historical developments with political theorizing, see J.
If Cicero as a new man made senator had to contend with the competitive pressures of republican politics, Seneca c. For Seneca, Stoic philosophy of which he was an avowed exponent, though other philosophical influences can also be found in his ideas , can be best squared with politics if the ruler is supremely virtuous: in that case, the Stoic wise man is the king or prince.
Like Cicero, Seneca wrote essays in natural as well as political philosophy, including for example a significant analysis of the give and take of benefits or reciprocal gifts and favors in political life De beneficiis , recently translated afresh by Griffin and Inwood, , and even a De officiis which is lost. Like Cicero, he wrote important collections of letters and where Cicero wrote poetry, Seneca also wrote plays. Indeed, Seneca asserts that those who are curable will generally strive subsequently to become worthy of the clemency shown to them by the prince 2.
In good Stoic fashion, Seneca finally shows that the virtue of clemency is both valuable in itself and also beneficial. It sustains the rule of a prince by inspiring love in his subjects 1. And conversely, whereas misericordia wallows in a wrongful and inefficient emotional pity for the treatment that justice would prescribe of the criminal 2. It is worth noting finally that, while Seneca specifies that clemency should also extend to slaves, his cosmopolitanism stopped short of advocating their manumission or the abolition of slavery Griffin — Seneca did not limit himself to the political function of advising rulers.
Instead, he conceived the role of philosophy as benefiting people generally, in the widest sense of a cosmopolitan ethics and even politics. Should such an ordinary regime turn lethal, the philosopher remains a citizen of the cosmic commonwealth, and so his serenity can and should remain intact. That fate befell Seneca himself in 65 CE, when Nero accused him of conspiring in a planned assassination of the emperor and ordered him to commit suicide.
No tyranny can so enslave us as to take away this freedom: a freedom to act based on the inner liberation of realizing that death and other worldly losses are in fact indifferent and irrelevant to happiness Inwood —9. Seneca was far from the only Stoic politically active in his day or in successive generations. On the varieties of Stoicism under the principate, see the classic study of Brunt , originally published in Yet these later Stoics made rather few detailed contributions to political philosophy, even if their fundamental analysis of living according to nature and reason, as further developed by figures ranging from the once-enslaved Epictetus to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, remained an important touchstone for thinking about politics.
While the men of affairs in the Roman Senate and imperial court turned often though not exclusively to Stoicism, in the Greek centers of philosophy and among provincial Greek men of affairs Platonism remained an important framework for thinking about both ethics and politics, as did a related if somewhat shadowy form of Pythagoreanism which can be seen as a continuation of the genre of Hellenistic kingship treatises Centrone The most important contributions made to political thought by the Platonist philosopher of the second-century AD, Plutarch c.
Plutarch also made important contributions to political philosophy in the many essays collected in his volumes of Moralia. Plutarch was a committed but in some ways revisionist Platonist. His attitude to public life was more Roman than Platonic befitting the role in public affairs that he played in his own city : the political life was for him unproblematically noble, not inferior to the life of philosophy.
Similarly, he revised the strict Platonic dictum that philosophers must rule by allowing that philosophers might rule merely in the sense of advising rulers, not of being rulers themselves. And he considered philosophy to be more of a character-building study than a source of knowledge of exact or politically relevant knowledge.
Where statesmen were educated in philosophy, as for example in the Lives of Pericles, Cicero, Brutus, and Cato Minor, he treats this as valuable mainly because of the virtue—in particular, moderation and self-restraint—which it imparts to them Van Raalte The study of philosophy serves as a sort of inoculation against greed and immoderate ambition.
But it need not impart any particular substantive knowledge to the statesman so competing philosophies could all be useful in shaping virtue: Anaxagaorean influence on Pericles, an eclectic mixture of Stoicism, Academic skepticism, and Platonism on Cicero; Stoicism on the younger Cato.
Indeed, excessively rigid adherence to a philosophy could be deleterious, making a statesman rigid and inflexible. He treated the exemplary Greek or Roman statesman as inherently and ideally a kind of monarchical figure, even when functioning within a democratic or republican environment. Thus for all his admiration for Greek statesmen of the classical age, and his profound later influence on republican sentiments in Europe, Plutarch preferred monarchy as the best constitution and believed that he was following his master Plato in so doing. For the other forms of government in a certain sense, although controlled by the statesman, control him, and although carried along by him, carry him along, since he has no firmly established strength to oppose those from whom his strength is derived… Peri mon.
Later Platonic philosophers, known as Neoplatonists see the entry on Plotinus , also focused primarily on ethics in the context of cosmology and theology, stressing the ascent of the soul to a disembodied pure understanding of the One. On a continuum of political rule stretching from the sheer domination of some over others on one extreme, to a vision of collaborative deliberation among equals for the sake of the good life on the other, many ancient Greek and Roman political philosophers clearly staked out the latter ground.
The very idea of the city and the civic bond as rooted in justice was common ground across much of the spectrum of ancient political philosophy. Even the Epicureans saw society as rooted in justice, although understanding justice in turn as rooted in utility. The nostalgic view of ancient political philosophy as predicated on widely shared conceptions of human nature and the human good, before the splintering and fracturing of modernity, is an oversimplification. It is true that those ancient visions of politics which rooted themselves in a commitment to ethical cultivation and the common good did not have to contend with the absolutist claims of rival versions of monotheistic religions.
But the ancients did have to answer various forms of relativism, immoralism, and skepticism, contending with rival philosophical schools which disagreed profoundly with one another. If some of them chose to see politics as a domain of common benefit and a space for the cultivation of virtue, this was not because it had not occurred to them that it could be thought of otherwise, but in part because they had developed powerful philosophical systems to support this view.
The experience and practices of the Greek poleis the plural of polis and the Roman res publica played important roles in shaping these approaches. Plato and Aristotle can in many ways be seen as defending some fundamental tenets of Greek ethics such as the value of justice , but doing so by means of advancing revisionist philosophical doctrines and distancing themselves from the ways in which those tenets were interpreted by the democratic institutions of their day.
The range of ethical and political views which they, along with their Hellenistic successors, laid out, continue to define many of the fundamental choices for modern philosophy, despite the many important innovations in institutional form and intellectual approach which have been made since. Many of those innovations, indeed, came in response to a revival of the ancient skeptical and relativist challenges: challenges already known from their evolution within ancient political philosophy itself.
Fuller bibliographies for most of the works and authors discussed can be found in the related articles listed below. The Oxford Classical Text series has been used for citation of most classical texts. Kranz eds. Sedley eds. The list below is arranged roughly chronologically in relation to the Greek or Latin texts that are translated in each case. There are useful series of Cambridge Companions , Cambridge Histories , and Blackwell Companions , among other such series, to various authors, texts, and schools, some of which are cited above. An authoritative source of important articles is H.
Temporini ed. The Scope of Ancient Political Philosophy 2. Politics and Philosophy in Ancient Greece 2. Socrates and Plato 3. Aristotle 4. Hellenistic Philosophies and Politics 5. The Roman Republic and Cicero 6. Political Philosophy in the Roman Empire 7. Instead it is right that such a person should rule without the term limits that political office would ordinarily require: If, however, there be some one person, or more than one, although not enough to make up the full complement of a state, whose excellence is so pre-eminent that the excellence or the political capacity of all the rest admit of no comparison with his or theirs, he or they can be no longer regarded as part of a state; for justice will not be done to the superior, if he is reckoned only as the equal of those who are so far inferior to him in excellence and in political capacity.
Hellenistic Philosophies and Politics Important developments in political thinking and practice took place under the Hellenistic kingdoms that supplanted Macedon in its suzerainty over the formerly independent Greek city-states. The Roman Republic and Cicero While the founders of the city of Rome were said to be the legendary twins Romulus and Remus, Romans would come to identify the origins of their distinctive liberty in the killing of a tyrannical king, generally dated in BCE, by the ancestor of the Junius Brutus who would eventually kill Julius Caesar.
Conclusion On a continuum of political rule stretching from the sheer domination of some over others on one extreme, to a vision of collaborative deliberation among equals for the sake of the good life on the other, many ancient Greek and Roman political philosophers clearly staked out the latter ground. Primary Literature The Oxford Classical Text series has been used for citation of most classical texts. Translations used The list below is arranged roughly chronologically in relation to the Greek or Latin texts that are translated in each case.
Gagarin, M. Woodruff, eds. Taylor, C. Cooper, J. Hutchinson assoc. Reeve, C. Barnes, J. Everson, S. Long, A. Sedley, eds. Griffin, M. Atkins, eds. Zetzel, J. Inwood, B. Braund, S. Inwood eds. King, C. Irvine ed. Dobbin, R. Farqharson, A. Secondary Literature Alberti, A. Annas, J. Arendt, H. Atkins, E. Atkins, J. Baraz, Y. Bartels, M. Bobonich, C. Lockwood and T. Samaras eds. Bouchard, E. Brunt, P. Brunt, Studies in Stoicism , eds.
Griffin and A. Samuels, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. Burnyeat, M. Harte and M. Lane eds. Cammack, D. Campbell, G.
Cartledge, P. Carawan, E. Centrone, B. De Blois, L. Bons, T. Kessels and D.
This Ancient Philosophy Is What We Desperately Need In Our Modern Lives | HuffPost Life
Schenkeveld eds. Dillon, J. Duvall, T. Dyck, A. El Murr, D. Frank, J. Fowler, D. Barnes and M. Griffin eds. Gale ed. Garnsey, P.
Roman Philosophy and the Good Life
Garver, E. Geuss, R. Giannantoni, G. Gildenhard, I. Hahm, D. Balot ed. Harte, V. Irwin, T. Patzig ed. In parts 2 and 3, I explain what we must do in order to prac- tice Stoicism. I start by describing the psychological techniques the Stoics developed to attain and subsequently maintain tran- quility. I then describe Stoic advice on how best to deal with the stresses of everyday life: How, for example, should we respond when someone insults us?
Although much has changed in the past two millennia, human psychology has changed little. I end the book by relating the insights I have gained in my own practice of Stoicism. My fellow academics might have an interest in this book; they might, for example, be curious about my interpretation of various Stoic utterances. The audience I am most interested in reaching, though, is ordinary individuals who worry that they might be misliving. It also includes those who have a philosophy of life but worry that it is somehow defective.
The pages that follow are my answer to this question. They were those individuals who not only asked questions—such as Where did the world come from? Where did people come from? They would have gone on to ask why the gods made the world, how they made it, and—most vexatiously to those trying to answer their questions—who made the gods.
However and whenever it may have started, philosophical thinking took a giant leap forward in the sixth century bc. According to Diogenes, early Western philosophy had two separate branches. If we follow through the various successors of Pythagoras, we ultimately come to Epicurus, whose own school of philosophy was a major rival to the Stoic school. Socrates lived a remarkable life. He also died a remarkable death: He had been tried for corrupting the youth of Athens and other alleged misdeeds, found guilty by his fellow citi- zens, and sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock.
He could have avoided this punishment by throwing himself on the mercy of the court or by running away after the sentence had been handed down. His philosophical principles, though, would not let him do these things. Plato, the best-known of his students, founded the school of philosophy known as the Academy, Aristippus founded the Cyrenaic school, Euclides founded the Megarian school, Phaedo founded the Elian school, and Antisthenes founded the Cynic school. What had been a trickle of philosophical activity before Socrates became, after his death, a veritable torrent.
Philosophy Takes an Interest in Life 19 Why did this explosion of interest in philosophy take place? In part because Socrates changed the focus of philosophical inquiry. Before Socrates, philosophers were primarily inter- ested in explaining the world around them and the phenomena of that world—in doing what we would now call science. Although Socrates studied science as a young man, he aban- doned it to focus his attention on the human condition.
Rather, it was the extent to which he allowed his way of life to be affected by his philosophical speculations. Indeed, according to the philosopher Luis E. Plato belonged to the former group; in his Academy, Plato was more interested in exploring philosophical theory than in dispensing lifestyle advice. In Greece and Rome, however, the rise of democracy meant that those who were able to persuade others were most likely to have successful careers in politics or law. Philosophy Takes an Interest in Life 21 These parents might have sought the services of a sophist, whose goal was to teach pupils to win arguments.
To achieve this goal, sophists taught various techniques of persuasion, including both appeals to reason and appeals to emotion. In particular, they taught students that it was possible to argue for or against any proposition whatsoever. Alternatively, parents might have sought the services of a philosopher.
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Like sophists, philosophers taught persua- sive techniques, but unlike sophists, they eschewed appeals to emotion. Also unlike sophists, philosophers thought that besides teaching their pupils how to persuade, they should teach them how to live well. Consequently, according to the historian H. There are no longer schools of philosophy, and this is a shame. It is true that philosophy is still done within schools— more precisely, within the philosophy departments of universi- ties—but the cultural role played by philosophy departments is quite unlike the role played by the ancient philosophical schools.
But even though schools of philosophy are a thing of the past, people are in as much need of a philosophy of life as they ever were. The question is, Where can they go to obtain one? If they go to the philosophy department of the local univer- sity, they will, as I have explained, probably be disappointed. What if they instead turn to their local church?
Their pastor might tell them what they must do to be a good person, that is, what they must do to be morally upstanding. They might be instructed, for example, not to steal or tell lies or in some reli- gions have an abortion. Their pastor will also probably explain what they must do to have a good afterlife: They should come to services regularly and pray and in some religions tithe. But their pastor will probably have relatively little to say on what they must do to have a good life.
This, one imagines, is why the adherents of the various religions, despite the differences in their religious beliefs, end up with the same impromptu philosophy of life, namely, a form of enlightened hedonism. Thus, although Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, Mormons, and Catholics hold different religious views, they are remarkably alike when encountered outside of church or synagogue.
They hold similar jobs and have similar career ambitions. They live in similar homes, furnished in a similar manner. And they lust to the same degree for whatever consumer products are currently in vogue. It is clearly possible for a religion to require its adherents to adopt a particular philosophy of life.
Consider, by way of illus- tration, the Hutterite religion, which teaches its adherents that one of the most valuable things in life is a sense of community. We can, of course, question whether this is a sound philosophy of life. What this means is that it is entirely possible these days for someone to have been raised in a religion and to have taken philosophy courses in college but still to be lacking a philosophy of life.
What, then, should those seeking a philosophy of life do? Perhaps their best option is to create for themselves a virtual school of philosophy by reading the works of the philos- ophers who ran the ancient schools. This, at any rate, is what, in the following pages, I will be encouraging readers to do. In ancient Greece, when schools of philosophy were still prominent features of the cultural landscape, there were any number of schools to which parents could send their chil- dren.
We could begin our tour in the Agora, where Socrates a century earlier had philosophized with the citizens of Athens. On the northern side of the Agora we would see the Stoa Poikile, or Painted Porch, and holding forth there might be Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. Philosophy Takes an Interest in Life 25 As we walked through Athens, we might come across the Cynic philosopher Crates, whose school of philosophy Zeno had once attended. Furthermore, whereas parents might have willingly sent their children to study with Zeno, it is unlikely that they encour- aged them to become Cynics, inasmuch as Cynic doctrines, if successfully internalized, would guarantee their child a life of ignominious poverty.
Heading northwest and leaving the city by Dipylon Gate, we would come to the Garden of the Epicureans, presided over by Epicurus himself. The Garden was in fact a working garden in which the Epicureans grew their own vegetables. Continuing toward the northwest, about a mile from the Agora, we would come to the Academy, the school of philos- ophy founded by Plato in bc, a bit more than a decade after the death of Socrates.
It was a parklike retreat, furnished with walks and fountains. On the Academy grounds were buildings, paid for by Plato and his friends. Holding forth there in bc might have been Polemo, who had inherited the position of master of the school. In this wooded area, near a shrine to Apollo Lykeios, we could see the Peripatetics, disciples of Aristotle, walking and talking, and at the head of the group might be Theophrastus.
But this is only the beginning of the educational options open to ancient parents. Besides the schools mentioned in connection with our walking tour, there were the Cyrenaic, Skeptic, Megarian, and Elian schools mentioned earlier, to which we can add several other schools mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, including the Eretrian, Annicerean, and Theodorean schools, along with the schools run by the Eudaemonists, the Truth-lovers, the Refutationists, the Reasoners from Analogy, the Physicists, the Moralists, and the Dialecticians.
Sometimes fathers studied alongside their sons. Other adults, though never having belonged to a school, might have attended its lectures as guests. Their motives were prob- ably very much like the motives modern individuals have in attending a public lecture: They sought to be enlightened and entertained. The early Stoics, for example, were interested not only in a philosophy of life, but in physics and logic as well, for the simple reason that they thought these areas of study were inherently entwined. The Cyrenaics and Cynics were inter- ested in neither physics nor logic; at their schools, all one was taught was a philosophy of life.
Those schools that offered students a philosophy of life differed in the philosophy they recommended. The Cyrenaics, for example, thought the grand goal in living was the expe- rience of pleasure and therefore advocated taking advantage of every opportunity to experience it. The Cynics advocated an ascetic lifestyle: If you want a good life, they argued, you must learn to want next to nothing. The Stoics fell somewhere between the Cyrenaics and the Cynics: They thought people should enjoy the good things life has to offer, including friend- ship and wealth, but only if they did not cling to these good things.
Indeed, they thought we should periodically interrupt our enjoyment of what life has to offer to spend time contem- plating the loss of whatever it is we are enjoying. Those who took their philosophy seriously attempted to live that philosophy from day to day. Instead, I think that which philosophy of life a person should choose depends on her personality and circumstances. But having made this admission, let me add that I think there are very many people whose personality and circum- stances make them wonderful candidates for the practice of Stoicism.
Furthermore, whatever philosophy of life a person ends up adopting, she will probably have a better life than if she tried to live—as many people do—without a coherent philosophy of life. And by Zeno, I mean Zeno of Citium, not to be confused with Zeno of Elea, who is famous for a paradox involving Achilles and a tortoise, or with any of the seven other Zenos mentioned by Diogenes Laertius in his biographical sketches.
Among them were philosophy books purchased in Athens. As the result of a shipwreck, Zeno found himself in Athens, and while there, he decided to take advantage of the philo- sophical resources the city had to offer. Just then, Crates the Cynic was walking by. They instead advocated a rather extreme philosophical lifestyle. Socially speaking, they were the ancient equivalent of what we today call the homeless: They lived in the streets and slept on the ground. Reviling or blows or insults are nothing to him. The Cynics were renowned for their wit and wisdom.
And like Socrates, the Cynics sought to instruct not only those who offered themselves as pupils but anyone at all, including those who were reluctant to be taught. He therefore came up with the idea of focusing not just on a philosophical lifestyle or a philosophical theory, but combining lifestyle with theory, the way Socrates had done. He went off to study with Stilpo, of the Megarian school. Crates responded by physically trying to drag him away. He also studied with Polemo at the Academy, and in around bc, he started his own school of philosophy.
In his teaching, he appears to have mixed the lifestyle advice of Crates with the theoretical philosophy of Polemo. Those who studied Stoicism under him started with logic, moved on to physics, and ended with ethics. Logic is, after all, the study of the proper use of reasoning. By teaching their students logic, the Stoics were helping them develop these skills: Students who knew logic could detect the falla- cies committed by others and thereby prevail over them in arguments.
And besides providing explanations of natural phenomena, as modern physics does, Stoic physics was concerned with what we would call theology. Zeno, for example, tried to explain such things as the existence and nature of the gods, why the gods created our universe and its inhabitants, the role the gods play in determining the outcome of events, and the proper relationship between people and the gods. The Stoic conception of ethics, readers should realize, differs from our modern conception. We think of ethics as the study of moral right and wrong. A modern- day ethicist might wonder, for example, whether abortion is morally permissible, and if so, under what circumstances.
The Stoics, however, thought it entirely possible for someone to have a bad life despite making a very good living. What, then, must a person do to have what the Stoics would call a good life? Be virtuous! Tell a modern reader that the Stoics advocate that she live in a virtuous manner, and she might roll her eyes; indeed, to this reader, nuns would be prime examples of virtuous individuals, and what makes them virtuous are their chastity, humility, and kindheartedness.
Are the Stoics, then, advocating that we live like nuns? To be virtuous, then, is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put it, in accordance with nature. And for what function were people designed? To answer this question, the Stoics thought, we need only examine ourselves. On doing this, we will discover that we have certain instincts, as do all animals. But we differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. From this we can conclude, Zeno would assert, that we were designed to be reasonable.
And if we use our reason, we will further conclude that we were designed to do certain things, that we have certain duties. We should, for example, honor our parents, be agreeable to our friends, and be concerned with the interests of our countrymen. Although, as I have said, the primary concern of the Stoics was with ethics—with living virtuously and thereby having a good life—they were also interested in logic and physics.
And by studying physics, they hoped to gain insight into the purpose for which we were designed. The Stoics came up with various metaphors to explain the relationship between the three components of their philosophy. If we lived in perfect accordance with nature—if, that is, we were perfect in our practice of Stoicism—we would be what the Stoics refer to as a wise man or sage. For the Stoics, however, the near impossi- bility of becoming a sage is not a problem. They talk about sages primarily so they will have a model to guide them in their practice of Stoicism.
The sage is a target for them to aim at, even though they will probably fail to hit it. The sage, in other words, is to Stoicism as Buddha is to Buddhism. When Cleanthes grew old, though, he started losing students to other schools, and the future of Stoicism looked bleak. When he died, leadership of the Stoic school was passed on to his pupil Chrysippus c. After the death of Chrysippus, the Stoic school continued to prosper under a succession of leaders, including Panaetius of Rhodes, who is remembered in the annals of Stoicism not as an innovator but as an exporter of the philosophy.
When Panaetius traveled to Rome in around bc, he took Stoicism with him. He befriended Scipio Africanus and other Roman gentlemen, got them interested in philosophy, and thereby became the founder of Roman Stoicism. After importing Stoicism, the Romans adapted the doctrine to suit their needs.
For one thing, they showed less interest in logic and physics than the Greeks had. As we have seen, the primary ethical goal of the Greek Stoics was the attainment of virtue. And by tranquility they did not have in mind a zombie-like state. Rather, Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.
For the Roman Stoics, the goals of attaining tranquility and attaining virtue were connected, and for this reason, when they discuss virtue, they are likely to discuss tranquility as well. One last comment is in order on the connection for the Roman Stoics between the goal of attaining virtue and the goal of attaining tranquility. This person might therefore become confused about what things are really good, consequently might fail to pursue them, and might, as a result, fail to attain virtue. Thus, for the Roman Stoics, the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of tranquility are compo- nents of a virtuous circle—indeed, a doubly virtuous circle: The pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue.
Why did the Roman Stoics give the attainment of tranquility a more prominent role than their Greek predecessors did? Part of the answer to this question, I think, is that the Roman Stoics had less confidence than the Greeks in the power of pure reason to motivate people. The Greek Stoics thought that the best way to get people to pursue virtue was to make them understand what things were good: If a person understood what the truly good things were, he, being rational, would necessarily pursue them and thereby become virtuous.
The Roman Stoics therefore seem to have concluded that by sugarcoating virtue with tranquility—more precisely, by pointing to the tranquility people would gain by pursuing virtue—they would make Stoic doctrines more attractive to ordinary Romans. Furthermore, Stoic teachers such as Musonius Rufus and Epictetus had another reason for highlighting tranquility: By doing so, they made their school more attractive to potential students. In the ancient world, we should remember, schools of philosophy were in direct competition with each other.
It has been suggested, for example, that in the middle of the third century bc, the Academic and Stoic schools of philosophy, because they were losing students to the rival Epicurean school, decided to join into a philosophical alliance and modify their doctrines accordingly, with the common purpose of attracting students away from the Epicureans. For example, when Potamo of Alexandria decided to start a school of philosophy, he had a stroke of marketing genius: He decided that the best way to draw students was to cherry-pick from the philosoph- ical doctrines of competing schools.
More to the point, we should remember that Zeno himself, to concoct Greek Stoicism, bent and blended the doctrines of at least three different philosophical schools: the Cynics, the Megarians, and the Academy. By highlighting tranquility in their philosophy, the Stoics not only made it more attractive to ancient Romans but made it, I think, more attractive to modern individuals as well. It is unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word.
Thus, tell someone that you possess and are willing to share with him an ancient strategy for attaining virtue, and you will likely be met with a yawn. Indeed, if asked, he might go on at length about how his life has been blighted by tranquility-disrupting negative emotions. The First Stoics 43 It is for this reason that in the following pages I focus my attention on the Roman rather than the Greek Stoics, and it is for this reason that the primary focus of my examination of the Roman Stoics is not their advice on how to attain virtue but their advice on how to attain and maintain tranquility.
Having said this, I should add that readers who follow Roman Stoic advice on attaining tranquility might thereby attain virtue as well. Should this happen, so much the better! Seneca was the best writer of the bunch, and his essays and letters to Lucilius form a quite accessible intro- duction to Roman Stoicism.
Musonius is notable for his prag- matism: He offered detailed advice on how practicing Stoics should eat, what they should wear, how they should behave toward their parents, and even how they should conduct their sex life. Nor was he particularly original. Nevertheless, his Stoic writings are quite wonderful. His essays and letters are full of insight into the human condition. In these writings, Seneca talks about the things that typically make people unhappy—such as grief, anger, old age, and social anxieties—and about what we can do to make our life not just tolerable but joyful.
Seneca, like the other Roman Stoics I will discuss, was not stoically resigned to life; he was instead an active participant in it. And like these other Stoics, he was a complex individual. Indeed, even if Seneca had never written a word of philosophy, he would have made it into the history books for three other reasons. He would be remembered as a successful playwright. Thus it was that after eight years of banishment, Seneca returned to Rome. Readers need to keep in mind, though, that unlike Cynicism, Stoicism does not require its adher- ents to adopt an ascetic lifestyle.
To the contrary, the Stoics thought there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things life has to offer, as long as we are careful in the manner in which we enjoy them. In particular, we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change. In 62, Burrus died, either from illness or as the result of being poisoned. Seneca realized that his days at court were numbered, and he attempted to retire from politics, pleading ill health and old age.
When the friends who were present at his execution wept over his fate, Seneca chastised them. What, he asked, had become of their Stoicism? He then embraced his wife. Still he did not die. He asked a friend to bring poison, which he drank but without fatal consequences. He was then carried into a bath, the steam of which suffocated him. Paul in Corinth. In this essay, Seneca explains how best to pursue tranquility. Fortunately, Musonius had a pupil, Lucius, who took notes during lectures. It is also likely that Musonius used these conversations both to instruct his students and to assess their philosophical progress.
Nero had him imprisoned and subsequently banished him. In 65 ad, he was sent to the island of Gyara or Gyaros in the Cyclades, a group of islands in the Aegean Sea southeast of Greece. The island was desolate, bleak, rocky, and nearly waterless. He soon discovered a spring on the island and thereby made it more habitable.
Not long thereafter, Emperor Vespasian banished all philosophers from Rome but seems to have exempted Musonius. He died in around ad. According to Musonius, we should study philosophy, since how otherwise could we hope to live well? Musonius therefore taught his students how to retain their Stoic tran- quility while participating.
Besides thinking that philosophy should be practical, Musonius thought the study of philosophy should be universal. He was subsequently acquired by Epaphroditus, secretary to Emperor Nero and later to Domitian. This must have given Epictetus exposure to the imperial court. Romans valued those slaves who showed signs of intelligence and initiative. Roman Stoicism 51 They trained them so they could make the best use of their gifts, and they subsequently put their slaves to work as teachers, counselors, and administrators.
Epictetus appears to have developed an interest in philos- ophy early in life. As a youth, we are told, he went around asking people whether their souls were healthy. If they ignored him, he persisted in questioning them until they threatened to beat him. After the death of Nero, Epictetus apparently gained freedom.
He started a school of philosophy but was subse- quently banished, along with all the other philosophers in Rome, by Domitian. He moved his school to Nicopolis, in what is now western Greece. After the assassination of Domitian, Stoicism regained its respectability and even became fash- ionable among Romans. Epictetus was by then the leading Stoic teacher. He could have moved back to Rome but chose instead to remain in Nicopolis. His school, despite its location, attracted students from around the Roman Empire.
According to the classicist Anthony A. To the contrary, he wanted his students to take his lectures personally. He wanted his remarks to strike close to home. He taught them, among other things, how to respond to insults, how to deal with incompetent servants, how to deal with an angry brother, how to deal with the loss of a loved one, and how to deal with exile.
Those who read Epictetus cannot help but notice his frequent mention of religion. Indeed, Zeus is mentioned more than anyone except Socrates. If this person asked what one must do to practice Stoicism, Epictetus might describe the various techniques Stoics advocate. If he asked why he should prac- tice these techniques, Epictetus might reply that doing so will enable him to attain tranquility.
Suppose, more precisely, he asked Epictetus what reason there was to think that the techniques advocated by the Stoics would enable him to attain tranquility. In his response to this question, Epictetus would start talking about Zeus. We were, he would tell the student, created by Zeus. His student was likely to accept this claim, inasmuch as atheism appears to have been a rarity in ancient Rome.
Then again, what Epictetus had in mind when he referred to Zeus is probably different from what most Romans had in mind. We are therefore a curious hybrid, half-animal and half-god. But sadly, he appears not to have been omnipotent, so in creating us, there were limits to what he could do. Yet since I could not give thee this, we have given thee a certain portion of ourself, this faculty of choice and refusal, of desire and aversion. He will then discover the reason we were created and the role we play in the cosmic scheme. He will therefore pursue virtue, in the ancient sense of the word, meaning that he will strive to become an excellent human being.
He will also come to realize that if he lives in accordance with nature, he will be rewarded with the tranquility that Zeus promised us. In chapter 20 I will have more to say about how this can be done. Because he was someone important, we know more about Marcus than about any of the other Roman Stoics. Marcus was born in He appears to have taken an interest in philosophy at an early age. Like Epictetus, Marcus was far more interested in Stoic ethics—in, that is, its philosophy of life—than in Stoic physics or logic.
From the time Marcus entered palace life, he had political power, and when Antoninus became emperor, Marcus served as virtual co-emperor. For one thing, he exercised great restraint in his use of power. No emperor, we are told, showed more respect to the Senate than Marcus did. To the contrary, he thought its value was obvious. He was sick, possibly with an ulcer. His family life was a source of distress: His wife appears to have been unfaithful to him, and of the at least fourteen children she bore him, only six survived. Added to this were the stresses that came with ruling an empire.
During his reign, there were numerous frontier uprisings, and Marcus often went personally to oversee campaigns against upstart tribes. During his reign, the empire also experienced plague, famine, and natural disasters such as the earthquake at Smyrna. He refused to eat or drink in an attempt to hurry death. His death provoked an outburst of public grief. His soldiers in particular were deeply moved by his passing.
Marcus, however, did not preach Stoicism. In a sense, then, Marcus represents the high-water mark of Stoicism. That Stoicism has seen better days is obvious. Have you, in the course of your life, encountered even one practicing Stoic? I would like to suggest, though, that the unpopularity of Stoicism is due not to a defect in the philosophy but to other factors.
For one thing, modern indi- viduals rarely see the need to adopt a philosophy of life. Furthermore, even if it dawns on these individuals that there is more to life than shop- ping, they are unlikely, in their pursuit of a philosophy of life, to turn to Stoicism.
Allow me, therefore, as part of my attempt to reanimate Stoicism, to explain, in the chapters that follow, what, exactly, is involved in the practice of this philosophy. Any thoughtful person will periodically contemplate the bad things that can happen to him. The obvious reason for doing this is to prevent those things from happening. Someone might, for example, spend time thinking about ways people could break into his home so he can prevent them from doing so.
How Stoicism can help you lead a ‘good life’
But no matter how hard we try to prevent bad things from happening to us, some will happen anyway. Seneca therefore points to a second reason for contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation.
To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. Another, less dramatic form of hedonic adaptation takes place when we make consumer purchases.
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Likewise, we experi- ence hedonic adaptation in our career. We might once have dreamed of getting a certain job. We might consequently have worked hard in college and maybe graduate school as well to get on the proper career path, and on that path, we might have spent years making slow but steady progress toward our career goal. We will grumble about our pay, our coworkers, and the failure of our boss to recognize our talents. We also experience hedonic adaptation in our relationships. We meet the man or woman of our dreams, and after a tumul- tuous courtship succeed in marrying this person.
One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. Around the world and throughout the millennia, those who have thought carefully about the work- ings of desire have recognized this—that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
This advice is easy to state and is doubtless true; the trick is in putting it into practice in our life. How, after all, can we convince ourselves to want the things we already have? The stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.
This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. Seneca describes the negative visualization technique in the consolation he wrote to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him.
In this consolation, besides telling Marcia how to overcome her current grief, Seneca offers advice on how she can avoid falling victim to such grief in the future: What she needs to do is anticipate the events that can cause her to grieve. If nothing else, our own death will end it. Epictetus also advocates negative visualization. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts.
He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room. During the day, he will fail to take advantage of opportunities to interact with her in the belief that such interactions can be postponed until tomorrow. Besides contemplating the death of relatives, the Stoics think we should spend time contemplating the loss of friends, to death, perhaps, or to a falling-out.
Among the deaths we should contemplate, says Epictetus, is our own. Indeed, Seneca takes things even further than this: We should live as if this very moment were our last. Some people assume that it means living wildly and engaging in all sorts of hedonistic excess. After all, if this day is our last, we will not pay any price for our riotous living. We can use drugs without fear of becoming addicted. We can like- wise spend money with reckless abandon without having to worry about how we will pay the bills that will come to us tomorrow.
This, however, is not what the Stoics had in mind when they advise us to live as if today were our last day. This in turn will make it less likely that we will squander our days. In other words, when the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. Why, then, do the Stoics want us to contemplate our own death? Because doing so can dramatically enhance our enjoy- ment of life.
And besides contemplating the loss of our life, say the Stoics, we should contemplate the loss of our possessions. Instead of spending our days enjoying our good fortune, we spend them forming and pursuing new, grander dreams for ourselves. Negative visualization can help us avoid this fate. What about a homeless person, for example? In particular, although their poverty will prevent them from doing many things, it will not preclude them from practicing negative visualization.
Consider the person who has been reduced to possession of only a loincloth. His circumstances could be worse: He could lose the loincloth. Suppose, then, that he loses his loincloth. As long as he retains his health, his circumstances could again be worse—a point worth considering.
And if his health deterio- rates? He can be thankful that he is still alive. It is hard to imagine a person who could not somehow be worse off. The claim is not that practicing it will make life as enjoyable for those who have nothing as it is for those who have much. Along these lines, consider the plight of James Stockdale. A navy pilot, Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam in and held as a prisoner of war until During that time, he experienced poor health, primitive living conditions, and the brutality of his jailers.
And yet he not only survived but emerged an unbroken man. How did he manage it? In large part, he says, by practicing Stoicism. The Stoics would work to improve their external circumstances, but at the same time, the Stoics would suggest things they could do to alleviate their misery until those circumstances are improved. One might imagine that the Stoics, because they go around contemplating worst-case scenarios, would tend toward pessi- mism. Allow me to explain. We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty.
After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and—miracle of miracles! This might sound a bit silly, but to someone who has not lost his capacity for joy, the world is a wonderful place.
To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot. Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoy- ment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.
One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted. To them, the world is wonder- fully new and surprising. But as children grow older, they grow jaded. By the time they are teenagers, they are likely to take almost everything and everyone around them for granted. And in a frightening number of cases, these children grow up to be adults who are not only unable to take delight in the world around them but seem proud of this inability. They will, at the drop of a hat, provide you with a long list of things about themselves and their life that they dislike and wish they could change, were it possible to do so, including their spouse, their children, their house, their job, their car, their age, their bank balance, their weight, the color of their hair, and the shape of their navel.
Sometimes a catastrophe blasts these people out of their jadedness. Suppose, for example, a tornado destroys their home. Such events are tragic, of course, but at the same time they potentially have a silver lining: Those who survive them might come to appreciate whatever they still possess. More generally, war, disease, and natural disasters are tragic, inasmuch as they take from us the things we value, but they also have the power to transform those who experience them. Before, these individ- uals might have been sleepwalking through life; now they are joyously, thankfully alive—as alive as they have felt in decades.
Catastrophe-induced personal transformations have draw- backs, though. Indeed, many people have a catastrophe- free—and as a consequence, joyless—life. A second drawback is that catastrophes that have the power to transform someone can also take his life. Unfortunately, moments after this epiphany he might be dead.
The third drawback to catastrophe-induced transforma- tions is that the states of joy they trigger tend to wear off. Those who come close to dying but subsequently revive typi- cally regain their zest for living. They might, for example, feel motivated to contemplate the sunsets they had previ- ously ignored or to engage in heartfelt conversations with the spouse they had previously taken for granted. They do this for a time, but then, in all too many cases, apathy returns: They might ignore the gorgeous sunset that is blazing outside their window in order to complain bitterly to their spouse that there is nothing worth watching on television.
Negative visualization does not have these drawbacks. Negative visualization is therefore a wonderful way to regain our appreciation of life and with it our capacity for joy. Negative Visualization 77 The Stoics are not alone in harnessing the power of negative visualization. Consider, for example, those individuals who say grace before a meal.
Some presumably say it because they are simply in the habit of doing so. But under- stood properly, saying grace—and for that matter, offering any prayer of thanks—is a form of negative visualization. And even if the food were available, they might not have been able to share it with the people now at their dinner table. Said with these thoughts in mind, grace has the ability to transform an ordinary meal into a cause for celebration.
In the course of my life, I have met many such people. They analyze their circumstances not in terms of what they are lacking but in terms of how much they have and how much they would miss it were they to lose it. Many of them have been quite unlucky, objectively speaking, in their life; nevertheless, they will tell you at length how lucky they are—to be alive, to be able to walk, to be living where they live, and so forth.
Earlier I mentioned that there are people who seem proud of their inability to take delight in the world around them. Or maybe they have decided that it is fashionable to refuse to take delight in the world, the way it is fashionable to refuse to wear white after Labor Day, and they feel compelled to obey the dictates of fashion.
To refuse to take delight in the world, in other words, is evidence of sophistication. They should want more and not rest content until they get it. We will quickly discover that we are living in what to them would have been a dream world—that we tend to take for granted things that our ancestors had to live without, including antibiotics, air conditioning, toilet paper! The negative visualization technique, by the way, can also be used in reverse: Besides imagining that the bad things that happened to others happen to us, we can imagine that the bad things that happen to us happened instead to others.
One way to avert this anger is to think about how we would feel if the incident had happened to someone else instead. The Stoics, as we have seen, advise us to pursue tranquility, and as part of their strategy for attaining it they advise us to engage in negative visualization. Suppose, for example, that a Stoic is invited to a picnic. Maybe someone will break an ankle playing softball. Maybe there will be a violent thunderstorm that will scatter the picnickers.
Maybe I will be struck by lightning and die. But more to the point, it seems unlikely that a Stoic will gain tranquility as a result of entertaining such thoughts. To the contrary, he is likely to end up glum and anxiety-ridden. In response to this objection, let me point out that it is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. It is instead something they will do periodically: A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him.
Furthermore, there is a difference between contem- plating something bad happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible for us to conduct such exercises without its affecting our emotions. It is possible, for example, for a meteorologist to spend her days contemplating tornadoes without subsequently living in dread of being killed by one.
In similar fashion, it is possible for a Stoic to contemplate bad things that can happen without becoming anxiety-ridden as a result. Negative Visualization 81 Finally, negative visualization, rather than making people glum, will increase the extent to which they enjoy the world around them, inasmuch as it will prevent them from taking that world for granted. Despite—or rather, because of—his occa- sional gloomy thoughts, the Stoic will likely enjoy the picnic far more than the other picnickers who refuse to entertain simi- larly gloomy thoughts; he will take delight in being part of an event that, he fully realizes, might not have taken place.
The critic of Stoicism might now raise another concern. But thanks to their ongoing practice of negative visualization, the Stoics will be remarkably appreciative of the people and things around them. Consider, by way of illustration, the two fathers mentioned earlier. The second father assumes that his child will always be there for him and there- fore takes her for granted.
Stoics, I think, would respond to this criticism by pointing out that the second father almost certainly will grieve the loss of his child: He will be full of regret for having taken her for granted. If only I had told her more bedtime stories! As we shall see, the Stoics think periodic episodes of grief are part of the human condition. But at least this father can take consolation in the knowledge that he spent well what little time he had with his child.
It is the second father, I think, who has set himself up for heartache. The Stoics would also respond to the above criticism by observing that at the same time as the practice of negative visu- alization is helping us appreciate the world, it is preparing us for changes in that world. To practice negative visualization, after all, is to contemplate the impermanence of the world around us. Thus, a father who practices negative visualization, if he does it correctly, will come away with two conclusions: He is lucky to have a child, and because he cannot be certain of her continued presence in his life, he should be prepared to lose her.
But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it. This in turn means that by practicing negative visualization, we can not only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experi- ence will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circum- stances.
If nothing else, our own death will deprive us of them. There will be—or already has been! There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, or make love. You will someday eat your last meal, and soon thereafter you will take your last breath. Sometimes the world gives us advance notice that we are about to do something for the last time. We might, for example, eat at a favorite restaurant the night before it is scheduled to close, orwe might kiss a lover who is forced by circumstances to move to a distant part of the globe, presumably forever.
Previously, when we thought we could repeat them at will, a meal at this restaurant or a kiss shared with our lover might have been unre- markable. But now that we know they cannot be repeated, they will likely become extraordinary events: The meal will be the best we ever had at the restaurant, and the parting kiss will be one of the most intensely bittersweet experiences life has to offer.
By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recog- nition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.
Most people choose the former because they think harms and benefits come from outside themselves. According to Epictetus, though, a philosopher—by which he means someone who has an understanding of Stoic philos- ophy—will do just the opposite. If you succeed in doing this, you will no longer experience anxiety about whether or not you will get what you want; nor will you experience disappointment on not getting what you want. Indeed, says Epictetus, you will become invincible: If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.
Thus, wanting things that are not up to us will disrupt our tranquility, even if we end up getting them. Consider, for example, my winning a tennis match. This is not something over which I have complete control: No matter how much I practice and how hard I try, I might nevertheless lose a match. Nor is it something over which I have no control at all: Practicing a lot and trying hard may not guarantee that I will win, but they will certainly affect my chances of winning. My winning at tennis is therefore an example of something over which I have some control but not complete control.
Stated in this way, the dichotomy is a genuine dichotomy. There are two ways we can fail to have complete control over something: We might have no control at all over it, or we might have some but not complete control. In his statement of the dichotomy of control, Epictetus suggests, quite sensibly, that we are behaving foolishly if we spend time worrying about things that are not up to us; because they are not up to us, worrying about them is futile.
To begin with, it makes sense for us to spend time and energy concerning ourselves with things over which we have complete control. In these cases, our efforts will have guaran- teed results. Notice, too, that because of the degree of control we have over these things, it will generally require relatively little time and energy for us to make sure they come about. We would be foolish not to concern ourselves with them. What are the things over which we have complete control?