This is a guest post by Kai Whiting. Kai is the co-author of the recently released Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in.
Stoic philosophy is profoundly about sculpting your own character for the purpose of living what the Stoic founder, Zeno of Citium, referred to as the “good life”. However, by “good” he didn’t mean nice or pleasurable. What he meant was a life worthy of being lived (the obtaining of what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia). And it is worthy because, through your capacity for reason, you are able to act and think courageously, justly, and wisely, with temperance. As my co-author Leonidas Konstantakos and I state in our book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in:
The four Stoic virtues — courage, justice, self-control, and wisdom — are meant to guide all choices and actions, great and small. In Stoicism, practicing courage means consistently, deliberately, and rationally facing dangerous or socially uncomfortable situations in pursuit of noble causes. Justice means ensuring that all beings are treated fairly and self-control means, among other things, consciously and habitually making the choice to regulate appetites for food, drink, money, and sex. This involves calling out and countering injustice whenever and however it arises. Finally, you are said to be wise when you are able to unwaveringly judge what is good, bad, or neither.
Undoubtedly, a lot of people come to Stoicism when they realize that an operating system focused on achieving fame, a bigger salary or a job promotion (all Stoic indifferents) is inherently an unstable one. This is because such a system only works if enough people get with your program and fortune (fortuna) aligns with your goals. Unfortunately, and as the Stoics highlight, other people getting with our program is not always (or often) up to us or completely within our power:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1 – Hard & Gill translation)
In any case, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is a perfect example of how power, fame, money and even being in a position to force a whole host of people (his Roman subjects and slaves) to make certain things easier, cannot shield you from all of life’s challenges and personal tragedies. Aside from being involved in perpetual war campaigns, mutinies, plagues, and floods, Marcus lost just about every child his wife, Faustina, gave birth to. Judging by the following entry in his personal journal, which we now refer to as Meditations, he also had to deal with his fair share of people who weren’t exactly interested in Stoicism or a journey towards eudaimonia:
Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil… I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1 – George Long translation)
Undoubtedly, Marcus’ wisdom is helpful when we come up against difficult people who either won’t get with our program, or who accidentally, or purposefully, attempt to sabotage our operating system. His words tell us that we are very likely to come across poorly behaved people and remind us that we do not have to take ownership of these people’s bad attitudes or actions. Likewise, we don’t need to hate them for it and shouldn’t allow ourselves to be triggered. Instead, we are called to appropriately deal with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we do not corrupt our own pursuit of eudaimonia.
Contrary to what is often expressed in Stoic social media circles, this doesn’t mean that we must always or automatically shrug our shoulders or ignore bad behavior. Nothing outside of seeking virtue and avoiding vice (the polar opposites of virtue: cowardice, greed, injustice and ignorance) is automatic in Stoicism. A Stoic’s reaction will always depend on context. Spending a lot of time sitting on the fence is not Stoicism. It’s siding with the victor. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do but it isn’t always. Certainly, sitting on the fence shouldn’t be about leaving the dirty work up to others or removing ourselves from every single person or situation we disagree with or dislike, just because it’s easier. In fact, limiting our interactions to a carefully designed echo chamber does not fit well with the Stoic call to work towards building a harmonious global community. This is also why Marcus reminds himself:
A branch cut from its neighbouring branch is necessarily cut away from the whole tree. In the same way a human being severed from just one other human has dropped from the whole community. Now the branch is cut off by someone else, but a man separates himself from his neighbour by his own hatred or rejection, not realising that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens. Only there is this gift we have from Zeus who brought together the human community: we can grow back again to our neighbour and resume our place in the complement of the whole. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.8 – Hard and Gill translation)
Fundamentally, Stoicism enables all of us who are willing to use our capacity for reason to take steps to understand the nature of a problem and what we can do, given our skillset and mindset, to solve it. And, in line with our pursuit of virtue, we solve it not just for ourselves but for the good of our community, recognizing as Marcus did:
What brings no benefit to the hive brings no benefit to the bee (Meditations 6.54)
If we grapple with the spirit of Marcus’ message, it quickly becomes obvious that while Stoicism does instruct us not to let an insult or a person’s behavior trigger or frustrate us, in order that we might rise above it, it does not tell us to scoff at or ignore someone else’s plight. Similarly, Stoicism isn’t really about changing our mindset so that we have a calmer quieter life or so we can train harder in the gym, now that we have learned what’s in our control. It’s fundamentally about understanding what’s in our control (or not) so that we allow ourselves the headspace to do what is right, for the right reason, for the good of the wider society of fellow citizens. This includes us.
Understanding our well-being from the perspective of the beehive leads us to consider our specific role within that beehive and how our attitudes and actions contribute to the harmony within it. While often overlooked, Stoicism calls us to consider how the food we swallow, the clothing we put on our backs and what we spend our time or money on affects other people (bees). By extension, we also need to consider how our individual behavior (and to a certain extent group think) affects the physical structure and functioning of the planet we inhabit (the physical structure of the beehive). This is because how we treat all living beings and their habitats on Earth is indicative of our virtuous (or vicious) character.
The fact that Stoics rejected the “nice life” in favor of the “good life”, and that a good life involves the beehive and not just the bee, tells us that while each Stoic individually pursues virtue, they do so with their eyes fixed on the common good of the community they belong to – for their sake and for the sake of others.
Kai Whiting is the co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com