Running a little behind in my course on Stoicism, I’m now getting up to date on the second week’s programme. This section challenges me to live in accord with Stoic values (virtues) and to set consistent goals in my daily life. It focuses more on my intentions and actions, i.e., my behaviour throughout the day. The ancient Stoics viewed their ethics as the very cornerstone of their philosophy. I also see my ethics as the cornerstone of my Druidry.
Living in accordance with nature is the goal of the Stoic. While many see have translated this as “living in accordance with virtue” for me it is the same thing. To live a life in balance and harmony with the natural world is to live a life of virtue. But what is virtue?
The dictionary’s first two definitions of virtue are:
- moral excellence; goodness; righteousness.
- conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.
There are other definitions, such as chastity and virginity, but these are irrelevant to the topic. What is important is that the Stoic definition of virtue is not the same as the modern definition that often is confused with righteousness, but is rather a striving for excellence in living in accordance with one’s ethical principles, a flourishing of that which makes us live well. Many people when they first hear the word “virtue” they think of someone who thinks they are better than someone else, and this is simply not the case in Stoicism. Valued living is often replacing virtue in both modern-day Stoicism as well as psychology, and this term is less confrontational as well as being more descriptive.
So, this week is all about learning what is under my control, and what is not. It’s a very Zen way of thinking, which I can relate to easily. Stoicism also throws in a few other concepts, such as when we act or behave well, we are working with virtue, and when we are acting or behaving badly, we are working with vice. Again, we have to remember the Stoic’s definition of virtue and vice, where virtue is living well and in accordance with nature, and vice is not. Everything not under our control is termed indifferent. The Stoic definition is something that we have no control over, fortune and misfortune. We might be striving towards personal excellence, and this is virtue, however, we might be working under conditions of illness or physical pain, over which we have no control. It is preferred, of course, to be hale and healthy, and the preferred does make an appearance in this section of the work. So, to sum it up, we have:
- Externals, such as health, wealth, and reputation, which are merely “preferred” and
- Virtues, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline, which are considered the chief “good” in life.
So, this week I begin by working with “values clarification”. This is an exercise which I’ve fallen out of the habit of doing, as I have done it previously in my Zen Buddhist studies. It is asking “are you sure” or “is that so” when you react to a situation or when you define your life in general. It is realising that your perception is only a tiny point on the compass, and that there are 359 other degrees from which to view it. It is questioning everything that we say or do, questioning our goals and how we live, questioning very deeply, and requires a lot of attention and focus.
To quote Marcus Aurelius:
“To what use then am I putting my own soul? Never fail to ask yourself this question and to cross-examine yourself thus: “What am I making of this part of me they call the ‘central faculty’ of the mind? And whose soul do I have now anyway? The soul of a child? Of a youth? […] Of a tyrant? Of a grazing animal? Of a wild beast?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.11
And so, the fundamental questions that are posed to me on this course right now are:
- What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
- What do you want your life to “stand for” or “be about”?
- What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
- What sort of thing do you most want to spend your life doing?
- What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g., as a parent, a friend, at work, and in life generally?
To begin with, what is the most important thing in life to me? It’s a hard choice, between my family and working towards creating a world where nature is honoured. In fact, the two are indeed a part of each other, for my blood relatives are an extension of my connection to the entire world – they are just more immediate to me DNA-wise. The most important thing is that the world we live in, nature and the natural world, is respected, not abused and is loved so that all future generations of beings can enjoy it.
What do I want my life to stand for or be about? I would like my life to stand for working together to create peace and harmony with the natural world, with each other, co-existing as we do on this little ball of rock hurtling through space. I’d like my life to be about re-enchanting our souls with the wonder of nature, of the gods and the ancestors, the spirits of place that have such meaning and provide us a context for our lives wherever we are in the world.
What would I like to be remembered for? I hope that in my work as a Druid, my words and deeds inspire others in their reverence for the land and for the past, present and future ancestors.
What sort of thing to I want to spend my life doing? What I am doing now, writing and sharing my experiences on the Druid path, hoping to gain a little wisdom and insight, and sharing the awen in a continuous cycle of inspiration and creativity.
What sort of person do I most want to be in my various relationships and roles in life? As a Druid, one works in harmony with nature. As an author, one whose words inspire. As a friend, someone who supports and is there for others. In life, someone who is genuine, living life to the fullest in harmony, and in doing so honouring the gods, the ancestors, my friends, colleagues, readers, neighbours, spirits of place and so on.
Now it’s my turn to consider these responses for the next few days, to see if they change, or how true they remain. To talk to friends and family, to share points of view. We then move on to more questions, to delve deeper into personal ethics, but first, I’m going to spend a good few days here, really defining my terms and finding the truth in the words.