‘News gets out that the Stoics’ annual party has been cancelled.’
So, as readers of this blog may be aware, I’m doing a course in Stoicism, giving some Western philosophy a go, taking a break from my studies in Eastern traditions. The basic premise behind Stoicism really intrigues me. It all boils down to “living in agreement with nature”. The course describes it as thus:
“Stoicism is a complex philosophy in some respects and it’s beyond the scope of this training to go into it in much detail. However, the central teaching was summed up fairly concisely. Stoicism teaches that the goal of life is “living in agreement with Nature”. The Stoics took that to mean, not retreating to a quiet life in the countryside, but rather living “in accord with virtue” or excelling as a human being. Living in agreement with our own nature means flourishing and fulfilling our potential, by cultivating reason and thereby achieving strength of character and practical wisdom. The outcome of our actions, whether we achieve external “success” or “failure”, is therefore less important than the nature of our own character.”
Being a Druid, the whole idea of living in agreement with nature I find highly appealing. It is, after all the goal of the Druid, is it not? For this course, I am taking the Stoic goal word for word here, and not adding on the extra interpretation that so many seem to use, that being, living in accordance with our own nature, or living in accordance with human nature. To me, that seems an unnecessary addition, and not quite in tune with my religious beliefs. It seems to separate the human from nature, where in my mind human nature is a part of nature, just we humans are a part of an ecosystem. To separate the human from nature, to create any lines of division are completely illusory; mental constructs created by human beings for whatever reason: superiority over other beings, separation from the material and the spiritual, and so on. I’m taking the Stoic goal word for word here, because it makes much more sense to me on my quest for integration.
The next aspect of the course that should be interesting is as follows:
“Your overall goal in this four-week training program is to learn to live more consistently in accord with traditional Stoic values, or with “virtue” and practical wisdom, and to evaluate the results for your quality of life. The most important aspect of this will be training yourself to consistently place more importance on your own character and actions than upon external events. You’ll also be training yourself to cultivate mindfulness so that you avoid going along with any thoughts, actions, or feelings, that may interfere with that goal.”
Having studied Eastern traditions, namely Buddhism for so many years, this both makes total sense to me and also presents a different point of view from which to operate. Within Buddhism, we are taught very similar concepts, cultivating mindfulness so that we do not fall into the traps of bad behaviour, allowing our thoughts and feelings to control our lives. As Lao Tzu said, ““Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” That makes perfect sense, and is a very noble thing to do. The difference in Stoicism lies perhaps in the cultivation and support of your own character, identity or self. Within Buddhism, we are taught not to transcend the physical or the material, as so many people wrongfully assume, but to transcend the notion of a separate self to the rest of existence. By living mindfully, wholly within our bodies, aware of our actions, thoughts and so on, we see that the illusion of separation is just that, an illusion. There really is no self.
In Stoicism, there is indeed a more defined sense of self, one that must be cultivated in order to live in accordance with nature. It goes without saying that placing more importance on your own actions rather than external events is the way forward to creating a life of harmony, but the difference lies in the importance of your character as well. Maybe Lao Tzu’s quote above bridges the gap between Buddhism and Stoicism, for it mentions the importance of character. On the other hand, maybe I’m misinterpreting the whole thing, and confusing “character” with “self”. It will be interesting to see if I can make that distinction as the course progresses, in accordance with the principles behind Stoicism.
What I love, and what works with the philosophies that I have previously studied, but perhaps doesn’t stress as much as Stoicism does, is the following from the course:
“Some things are “up to us”, or under our direct control, whereas others are not up to us.
In the next sentence, Epictetus explained that Stoics mean what is “up to us” in the sense of being completely voluntary and within our sphere of control. In a word, as he puts it, this means our actions. That includes our external behaviour but also certain mental acts, such as voluntarily judging something to be desirable or undesirable. Everything else is only under our control indirectly, as a consequence of our actions, which means that other factors can always intervene to thwart our intentions. Those things, which are not our actions, are referred to as “externals” or “indifferent” things. The Stoics often sum up the most significant and problematic externals as: health, wealth, and reputation. Pain and pleasure are also “indifferent” in the sense of being things that happen to us, rather than things we do. When our voluntary actions are good, that’s called “virtue”, and when they’re bad, that’s called “vice”. So acting with virtue rather than vice, in this sense, is the main thing that is “up to us”. Indeed, we’re told the Stoics sometimes defined the fundamental goal of life as “living in accord with virtue”.
Epictetus goes on to say that the root cause of most emotional suffering is placing too much value on these external things, on things beyond our direct control. Becoming overly-attached to externals makes us all the “slaves” of our passions, he says. That’s definitely something worth thinking about, isn’t it? The Stoics therefore repeatedly advised their students to notice when they were experiencing unhealthy emotions or desires, feelings they might want to change. When this happens we’re to pause for a moment and try to grasp very clearly what aspects of the situation are entirely within our sphere of control.”
Focusing on what is under our control, and what is not, is indeed a part of Buddhism. However, the stress that the Stoics put on this concept in relation to living in virtue is much stronger. Attachment to our thoughts and emotions is very similar within the two traditions, and mindfulness of when we are acting out inappropriately is a key concept. However, within Stoicism the difference lies in that we perhaps don’t detach from all emotions or passions, but instead cultivate virtue over vice. I am hesitant in this regard, worrying about cultivating a sense of pride that might impede the Stoic sense of being. Buddhism states that all attachments, to the good or bad, are impediments on the way to enlightenment. The goal of integration is to move beyond attachments into a pure moment of utterly being. Stoicism doesn’t ask us to move beyond striving to do good, to excel in virtue, to perhaps in a sense attach to these ideals. There isn’t the “goalless goal” in Stoicism that there is in Buddhism. It’s fascinating.
With these goals and concepts in mind, working them with my Druidry is, I think, going to be an enlightening experience. I’m eager to see if it truly does lead towards a life in accordance with nature. After working this week with the course, already some things are starting to “click”, and work easier than with some of the Eastern concepts. Then again, it may simply be my interpretation of these concepts that is the greatest challenge towards understanding and integration.