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The Way of Stoicism: How East and West Use Similar Principles for Virtuous Living. 


This is a guest post by Brenton Weyi.

Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Zeno believed that Stoicism was based on the universal principles of life. They believed that these principles transcended any individual human being or society. This steadfast conviction allowed them to remain strong during circumstance that would break most ordinary people.

What’s interesting is that we often think about Stoicism as a very Western concept. And while it did start with Roman thinkers, it’s principles can be seen outside of the west. 

While we focus on the lives of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, we of miss tracing the similarities between different ancient philosophical doctrines. I’ve always been fascinated with the intersection of thought between the greatest Western minds and Eastern minds of history.

One of the most impactful books to come out of the East is the Tao Te Ching. Written by Lao Tzu in the 4th Century BCE, it completely revolutionized the way people looked at their lives and their relationships to the outside world.

But what’s interesting is that as one really delves into to Taoist philosophy, he starts to notice that a lot of its lessons seem interestingly…Stoic. Or perhaps a lot of Stoic doctrine seems interestingly Taoist. It’s fascinating that so many of the greatest ancient minds had a similar conception of what it meant to live a good life.

Let’s take a look at some of the concepts of the Tao and how they draw on the same universal principles as Stoicism, allowing us to unite two of history’s greatest philosophies into one outlook of living the virtuous life.

On Freedom from Outcome

“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”

In our modern day, we live in a world that’s particularly outcome oriented and externally focused. If you don’t have fruits to show for you labor —the houses, the cars, the titles, the awards—then it must mean that either your labors were in vain or that you were not adding enough value. 

But Lao Tzu and the Stoics lucidly saw past this fallacy: they knew that all we can really focus on is our own action. They also knew that learning and development oft happen under the surface. Even if we don’t drink from the winner’s cup, we can always take away the lessons of experience from every endeavor. 

On Fear

“Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don’t see the self as self, what do we have to fear?” 

Lao Tzu, like the Stoics, believed that fear came from ego. When we focus on our own individual gain or loss or the perception of others, or when we ascribe an identity or outcome to ourselves that we “should” be living up to, then fear naturally results. 

However, when we approach situations with humility and realize that we are but a small piece of a much greater system — and that humans are mostly alike at the end of the day — we realize that fear is simply created in and by the mind.

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!” — Seneca—Epistolae Ad Lucilium. XCVIII.

or in the words attributed to Mark Twain: 

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

To free ourselves from fear means to focus on the conditions that we are currently experiencing, to mentally prepare ourselves for inevitable misfortune and to never suffer before we need to.

On Constructs

“Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.” 

In life, things only have meaning inasmuch as we ascribe our interpretive meaning to them. There is a wonderfully illustrative Chinese parable on good and bad fortune that embodies this perspective.

The story is of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills.

When the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off.

Now was that good luck or bad luck?

Who knows?

We never know what fortunes or misfortunes the vicissitudes of fate will have for us, so to describe an occurrence or a person as “good” or “bad” is to use a limited, singular and often biased perspective. Even the despots of history were admired by some and sparked some of the greatest inventions known to man. 

So we must a calm reason when greeting both boon and bane.

On Patience

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” 

One of Lao Tzu’s most famous adages comes from his observation of nature: Nature does not hurry and yet everything is accomplished. 

We are so obsessed with the idea of speed: the need to “get there” and to do it even faster. But there is value in concerted cultivation.

One can learn a lot from tending seeds and plants. There’s no action that can rush a plant into germination, or growth, or flowering, or bloom. All it takes is putting the plant in a warm environment and making sure that you do your part to water it.

However, pouring more water on it will not accelerate its growth. In fact, trying to rush the plant will likely kill it.

Similarly, in conflict, it is easy to give in to our immediate reactions to try to hastily solve a problem or avoid negative emotions. But it takes discipline to be able to withstand the temptations of fleeting emotions and act based on reason.

On Misfortune

“Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.

What do you mean by ‘Accept disgrace willingly’?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss and gain.
This is called ‘accepting disgrace willingly.’

What do you mean by ‘Accept misfortune as the human condition’?
Misfortune comes from having a body.”

This reminds me of the practice Cato cultivated of accepting hardship — and even willingly seeking it

He walked around Rome in unusual clothing with the goal of getting people to laugh at him. He learned to subsist on a poor man’s rations. He went barefoot and bareheaded in heat and rain. He learned how to endure sickness in perfect silence.

A lot of people move through life with the aim of avoiding pain. But ancient thinkers realized that pain is synonymous with virtuous living.

“Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” — Horace

I once met a man who has all the conventional trappings of success — money, health, material goods, etc. But when I asked him what loves most in life, rather than discussing his wealth, he said something that gave me a moment of pause. 

“I love travelling. I love travelling because I travel to suffer.” 

We paused and looked at each other for a moment. He continued.

“I don’t stay in luxury hotels. I don’t ride around in taxis. I take the seedy trains. I take the fewest supplies I can. I go into the slums. But what results is usually the opposite of suffering. Yes, there are some difficult moments, but I’m reminded of how free one can feel without that burdens and trappings of every day. I’m reminded of the simple pleasures: of listening, of connecting via a smile. I’m reminded of what things really matter.” 

I held onto those words ever since that exchange.

It reminded me of one of my own practices. On a near daily basis I’ll look in the mirror into my own eyes and say “I wish you hardship. May you find new strength today.” 

It’s a reminder that the hardship is necessary in order to continue this very delicate process of human refinement. I often think about how many brotherhoods and sisterhoods have a piece of polished gold, silver or marble as a prominent symbol in their organizations. These symbols are often designed to represent that at the end of life, one has hopefully chipped away at the debris — the hardness, the vices, the negativity — in order to become a kind and cultivated person. 

But this process only occurs as move through the crucible periods of life: the moments of pressure and calls for a greater strength.

Every difficult moment is an invitation.

On Virtue

“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”

For these incisive ancient thinkers, virtue was the only thing to live for. Virtue, which was gained by simplicity, integrity and compassion, was the guiding light to live a life that left one fulfilled on a nightly basis, and allowed him to let go of his existence in satisfaction and acceptance. 

Despite the fact that many people draw divisions between “Eastern” and “Western” philosophy, there is so much value and richness that can be gleaned from practices that draw on the same universal principles. And whether you follow Lucius Seneca or Lao Tzu, you can always learn from The Way of the Stoic. 

Brenton Weyi is a 1st generation American philosopher, poet, and polymath. He uses the power of philosophical inquiry and the arts to help people cultivate a deeper humanity. Brenton has won several writing awards and has been featured in the LA Times, Writing Magazine and many others. You can find more of his writing at The Renaissance Mind.