Why Stoicism Matters in the 21st century
Why should a 2000 year old philosophy matter in the 21st century? What use could there be in the beliefs of those who walked the earth so long ago. Especially when we have achieved so much over the past 2 millennia.
We now have supercomputers as phones, we have harnessed the elements of nature to give us energy and power. Medicine has either eradicated or turned once fatal diseases into nothing but minor illnesses. We are a connected planet and can communicate from one end of the earth to another in a matter of seconds, and travel across it within a day, and now we look to the stars as we prepare to inhabit planets within our solar system.
It is truly remarkable what we have achieved and what we have done over the past two millennia. But with all we have achieved, and with how far we have come. In the eyes of the Stoics we are the brink of becoming a society they hoped we would never become.
We seem more distressed than ever before. We are more attached to vain and empty ambitions and desires, we are more confused and disordered. We seem to fear life, death and everything in-between. The slightest insult wounds us deeply. We are in a state of frenzy of wanting more and being ungrateful with what we have. Its not enough we have shelter, clean water, food, medicine or money. We want the shiniest phone, we want houses with more size than use. We shy away from problems, refuse to take responsibility, and are slaves to emotions we never questions and harmful impulses that pull us from pillar to post.
We are a society that has gained the world but lost its soul.
We split the atom, but made the atomic bomb. We harnessed nature but have polluted her to the point of bringing about our own destruction along with all other life on earth. We have more technology in our phone than the rocket that took man to the moonet what do we do with this technology? We use it for games and filming videos in the hope we become viral. We have all our basics needs met, and more opportunity than any generation before us, yet we complain like we believe we are so hard done by.
Our advances as a civilisation, appear to have also advanced the worst aspects of us. For every great leap in human development, society finds a way to pervert it and bring it closer to ending our story.
The world is on a knife edge. In the coming decades our future will be written. One tinderbox, could lead to a world war on a scale never seen before. Climate change if not tackled will lead to a poisoned world. Over destruction of nature and overuse will leads to a disease which we will not be able to come back from.
So, to return to the original question of why Stoicism matters. Its is because of all this, because of the advances we have made, that makes Stoicism and philosophy matter more now than it ever has done.
The world has changed, but human nature has not. Only this time the stakes are higher than ever before.
We know there is something wrong with they way we live today. This has led to a society where people are screaming for meaning and purpose. Leading to book after book. Promise after promise.
‘Mindfulness, life hacks, minimilism, nihiism, realpolitik. From star signs to science. Bold religious claims, the law of attraction - think positively and the universe will conspire in your favour.
So many paths, so many apparent truths. So many people telling you to be this and that.
'10 steps, 4 hacks, 15 rules. This 10 minute routine. journal this, Bullet that, meditate this way, visualise that way. ‘
The current self- help industry born from our hunger for meaning and order has probably done more damage to the individual than any of the chaos we seek to calm.
If you have a 100 maps with a 100 different routes you will never make it to your destination. Many do not even lead to the path you seek. Most self-help books are cleverly marketing and designed to make you feel like you need them. Wrong. They need you, they need your money, nothing more nothing less.
Thankfully our ancestors were not overwhelmed by such things, and sought a clear path, a truth path. A path which gave them the answers which we in todays world seek.
They encountered many of the problems we encounter today:
Coming to terms with mortality, finding meaning in life, battling unbridled desire, anxiety, anger, jealousy, fear, insecurity. Dealing with rude and deceiving people. All of these issues were as much a problem in the ancient world as it is the current. They were needing a guiding star as much as we are.
Unlike us, our ancestors found that guiding star. It was called Stoicism.
Stoicism calls for simplicity, for honest living, it calls for living at peace with yourself and the world. It trains the mind to not only overcome the obstacles of our life but thrive because of them. Happiness, contentment, calm, courage, confidence, peace, purpose, resilience, self- awareness, self-mastery and A life well lived. This is the promise of Stoicism.
All the things we fear or avoid, Stoicism equipped them to face, and they were the better for it.
Those who composed and wrote of the doctrines and practices did not have publishing deadlines, or page numbers to hit, they didn’t have quotas or any other agenda except for seeking truth, seeking to understand the universe, this experience we call life, our place within it and how we can best navigate it. They sought reason and how to perfect the human character.
Stoicism has not only endured the test of time, but more importantly the test of events.
It has endured because it works, it works like no other school of philosophy before or after it. Their words will stand as long as we do, their thoughts, maxims and beliefs are authentic and true. Which is why their words carry such meaning and potency and why they impact us in such a way.
The goal of Stoicism was to live in accordance with nature, through the practice of Virtue, and to cultivate the soul and perfect the human character to deal with life.
To talk of virtue and the soul is a very alien concept in todays world. And indeed our understanding of them is very different to what their original meanings meant.
Virtue, originally meant to excel, or flourish, like a flower in full bloom. How many people can say they have flourished in life?
The soul was not a vague esoterical concept. But something very real inside of us. Which like a garden, needed to be tended too and cultivated, so that goodness can grow.
This is why Stoicism matters, for all our progress, we appear to have lost ourselves. We no longer know how to use our inner compass, how to guide our thought or control our lives. We no longer live for the common good but ourselves, and as I said before, the stakes are higher now than they ever have been.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was deeply inspired by the Stoics, wrote in his essay self-reliance about a society he feared was advancing in one respect but losing who they were in the progress, a society that appears to be moving forward, but at what cost?
‘The Civilised man built the coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.’ - Ralph Waldo Emerson
‘We are becoming timorous, desponding whimpers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons.’ - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Here are some of our favourite quotes to help introduce you to the writings of the Stoics:
Make your way through this brief moment called life in accordance with nature. Accept you death with a cheerful heart like an olive that may ripen and fall. Blessing the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth. - Marcus.
Do not let external events anger you. They do not care - Marcus.
If you come across a man who is never alarmed by dangers. Never affected by cravings. Happy in adversity. Calm in the mist of the storm. Into that body there has descended a divine power. The soul that smiles at all the things we fear or pray for, is impelled by a force that comes from heaven. - Seneca.
Realise at last that you have something more powerful and more divine within you than the things that give rise to your passions and set you moving like a puppet - Marcus.
When misfortune appear on the horizon, we exaggerate them from sheer fright, and when they are right upon us we exaggerate them once more, because of the pain they are causing us. These feelings impel us to put blame on circumstances when what we ought to be blaming is a deficiency in our own character. - Cicero.
Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. To show them in their doubt and disarray the shining torch of truth. - Seneca.
For what does that promise amount too? This: that heaven willing, philosophy will ensure that those who have obeyed its laws shall never fail to be armed against all the hazards of fortune. - Cicero.
With regard to everything the happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it - Epictetus.
Philosophy can help us to avoid groundless fears and reduce our needs to a minimum. - Seneca.