Stoicism might not be your cup of tea, but it's still a valid one.
Jorge Hernandez ∙ 10 min of reading
Stoic tango tenet
In this essay, I will defend that Stoicism is applicable in contemporary times, utilizing the following resources: Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (διαλογισμοί του Μάρκου Αυρήλιου Αυγούστου) and Epictetus Enchiridion. I decided to concentrate on both since they were able to embrace Stoic philosophy during their youth, four centuries after its inception (Meditations 2006, p.2, The Enchiridion 2014, pp.42-43). Moreover, their writings remain pertinent in modern society and their influence on the study of Stoic philosophy is undeniable.
I will delve into two core tenets of Stoicism: Stoic Acceptance and Stoic Virtues. I have chosen two robust and supportive aphorisms and one weak. For each of these, I will examine an argument, a counterargument, and the potential weakness of the counterargument.
Unraveling the Origins
The Oxford dictionary refers to the etymology of “viable” from the early 19th cent.: from French, from vie ‘life’, from Latin vita. Definition: that can be done; that will be successful. The Cambridge dictionary defines “viable” as: able to work as intended or able to succeed. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the etymology of "philosophy" comes from the Greek word "philosophia," which means "love of wisdom." It is derived from the words "philo," meaning "to love," and "sophia," meaning "wisdom.
For Epictetus, philosophy is not just a theoretical or abstract pursuit, but practical ways of life that can help individuals achieve inner peace and fulfillment (The Enchiridion 2014, p.18). Marcus Aurelius believed that philosophy was a way of life that could help individuals achieve inner peace and live in harmony with the fundamental principles that govern the universe (Meditations 2006, p.218).
Nowadays and according to the Oxford Dictionary, philosophy is "the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence." This definition reflects the academic nature of philosophy in modern times and its status as a distinct field of inquiry especially when considered as an academic discipline.
Similarly, the Cambridge Dictionary defines philosophy as "the use of reason in understanding such things as the nature of the real world and existence, the use and limits of knowledge, and the principles of moral judgment." This definition emphasizes the use of reason and critical thinking in the pursuit of understanding fundamental questions about the world and our place in it.
Stoicism Unchained: Finding Freedom in Acceptance
Stoic acceptance. - I will present aphorisms from "The Enchiridion" and from "Meditations" that refer to acceptance, two robust and one weak. I will provide a discussion following each.
I. Robust examples:
A. Epictetus: "Not in our power are all the elements which constitute our environment, such as wealth, health, reputation, social prestige, power, the lives of those we love, and death. In our power are our thinking, our intentions, our desires, our decisions. These make it possible for us to control ourselves and to make of ourselves elements and parts of the universe of nature. This knowledge of ourselves makes us free in a world of dependencies."
1. Argument. - By acknowledging that our desires and possessions do not define us we can find happiness in simplicity, we can diminish our attachment to material things and liberate ourselves from the stress and anxiety that come with excessive craving and ambition, in doing so we can focus in cultivating a more fulfilling life.
2. Counterargument. - Simplicity and minimalism may be privileged perspectives that are not accessible to all. In certain circumstances, pursuing material possessions may be necessary for survival and success. Economic realities, societal expectations, and cultural norms can significantly influence one's ability to adopt a minimalist lifestyle.
3. Weakness of the counterargument. - Epictetus humble beginnings in slavery did not deter him from seeking knowledge, as he eagerly absorbed the teachings of Rufus and embraced stoicism. His journey from slave to philosopher exemplifies the power of education and self-improvement and serves as an inspiration to all who face adversity. By recognizing what is within our control, we too can cultivate a sense of inner peace and resilience in the face of challenges.
B. Marcus: "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen and is not apt to fall."
1. Argument. If we have a sense of humility and respect for the power of the unexpected, this allows us to acknowledge that there will always be factors outside of our control, and that we must be prepared to adapt and adjust when things don't go as planned. By being flexible and open-minded, we can avoid getting stuck in rigid thinking patterns and remain receptive to new possibilities and opportunities.
2. Counterargument. - Being too flexible and open-minded may result in a lack of stability and consistency, which can be detrimental to personal and professional growth, it could lead to indecisiveness and a lack of direction. A clear plan and pursuing it with determination can lead to success and achievement.
3. Weakness of the counterargument. - It is possible to be both flexible and consistent, adapting to changing circumstances while staying true to one's goals and values. It is important to consider that excessive rigidity and inflexibility can also be detrimental to personal and professional growth, and can lead to missed opportunities for learning and development. While it is true that excess of flexibility and open-minded may lead to a lack of stability and consistency, being flexible does not imply a lack of direction or determination, rather, it allows us to adjust our strategies and approaches when faced with unforeseen obstacles or opportunities and by combining adaptability with a strong sense of direction, we can maintain consistency in our actions while remaining open to alternative paths that may lead to personal and professional growth. Excessive rigidity and inflexibility limits the ability to respond effectively to changing circumstances and may cause us to miss valuable opportunities for learning and development.
II. Weak supportive example:
A. Epictetus: "If you want to make progress, put aside everything else and keep hold of only the straightway; and what is the straightway? It is the one that follows nature."
1. Argument of weakness. - If this saying encourages focusing on achievements, it contradicts previous sayings that suggest taking a more passive stance; If technological innovation, economic growth, and scientific advancement are proof of progress but they have not been aligned with the interdependence of all things, then progress is not what follows nature.
2. Counter Argument. - By reconnecting with the natural world and prioritizing our basic human needs, such as rest, nutrition, and movement, we can improve our overall well-being and make progress towards our goals. While technological innovation provides many benefits, it also has unintended consequences such as environmental degradation, social inequality, and loss of traditional knowledge and practices. By taking a holistic perspective and considering the broader context of our actions we can ensure that our pursuit of progress is in harmony with nature and contributes to the greater good.
3. Weakness of the counterargument.- Prioritizing basic needs such as rest, nutrition, and movement is not always sufficient to achieve goals that require advanced knowledge, skills, or social resources. Technological innovation has led to positive outcomes such as increased access to information, improved health outcomes, and enhanced communication and connectivity besides the consequences, and as long as is aligned with the interdependence of all things, it’s real progress.
Virtues: The Recipe for a Stoic Smoothie in Life's Blender
Stoic Virtues. - Virtues are more than just ethical ideals or individual values. They also serve as practical guidelines for navigating life's challenges and complexities in a way that is rational and aligned with the natural order of the universe (The Enchiridion 2014, p.8). Moreover, virtues are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Those who cultivate and embody these virtues are better equipped to handle these challenges. Below are aphorisms from "Meditations" one robust and one weak. I will provide a discussion following each.
I. Robust example: "The four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance."
1. Argument. Virtues are not just individual values that exist in isolation, the practice of one support and/or enhances the practice of another, by cultivating a holistic approach to virtuous living, we can develop a more comprehensive understanding of ethical behavior and personal growth, and navigate life's challenges with greater resilience and purpose, for example: the virtue of courage may require the practice of wisdom in order to make sound decisions in the face of fear. Similarly, the virtue of compassion may require the practice of humility in order to recognize the shared humanity of oneself and others. The practice of patience may support the practice of perseverance, as both require a willingness to endure difficulty and discomfort in pursuit of long-term goals. Wisdom involves not only making good decisions but also understanding the communion of all things and recognizing our place in the universe. Courage involves not only standing up for our beliefs but also accepting the outcomes that result from our actions. Justice involves not only fairness in society but also being fair to oneself and recognizing our shared humanity. Temperance involves not only controlling our impulses but also being content with what we have and recognizing the limits of our control.
2. Counter Argument. -Virtues are subjective and culturally dependent, and therefore cannot be universally applied. The emphasis on individual virtues neglects the importance of social and communal values. The pursuit of virtues can lead to rigid thinking and a lack of flexibility, as individuals become too fixated on adhering to moral ideals.
3. Weakness of the counterargument.- While there may be some variation in how virtues are prioritized and practiced, the concept of virtues themselves is not inherently subjective or culturally dependent. From a stoic perspective, virtues are not meant to be absolute rules, but rather guidelines for ethical behavior. The practice of them requires a degree of flexibility and discernment, as it involves making judgments about how to apply moral principles in specific situations. Kindness, empathy, and cooperation are essential for building and maintaining healthy relationships and communal values.
II. Weak supportive example. - "The best revenge is not to be like your enemy."
1. Argument of weakness: While the principle of refusing to stoop to the level of one's adversary is a helpful guide in some cases, it is important to also listen to the voices of those who are most affected by a given issue, reason why, it is not a universal solution. Standing up for one's principles and making positive change in the world is uncomfortable and challenging, opposite to justify inaction or to prioritize personal comfort over social justice. A call to avoid conflict or to seek personal peace at the expense of others is not virtuous.
2. Counterargument. - To preserve one's sense of self and dignity, it is crucial to uphold one's values and beliefs, even in the face of opposition. This is particularly pertinent when contemplating moral fortitude and the significance of defending what one believes in. By refusing to lower oneself to the level of an adversary, one can break the cycle of anger and resentment, and instead opt to move forward and release negative emotions.
3. Weakness of the counterargument. -Refusing to lower oneself to the level of an adversary may be seen as a missed opportunity to assert oneself and defend one's position. The concept of preserving one's sense of self and dignity may be subjective and culturally dependent, and that different societies may have different interpretations of what constitutes moral fortitude and ethical behavior.
I chose to focus on the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus because they both embraced stoicisms, despite coming from very different backgrounds. In their youth, one had access to the best knowledge of the time and enjoyed the highest stability, protection, and privileges that a person could have, however, he was also exposed consistently to the temptation of being free of retaliation for innumerable acts of passionate desires and unvirtuous acts that were common for the time, and this exposure continued for 19 years (The Enchiridion 2014, p.8). On the other hand, Epictetus was born into the opposite situation, where privilege meant serving and no protection or basic needs were guaranteed.
Nevertheless, both managed to train themselves in virtues, natural order, reason/logic, rationalized emotions, acceptance, and ethical stoic behavior, eventually they achieved apatheia and asceticism. (The Enchiridion 2014, p.8)
Conclusion: Keep Your Cool When the Wi-Fi Goes Down?
It is important to recognize that embracing Stoicism may not be suitable for everyone at every stage of their lives. While its principles offer valuable insights, the demands of righteousness, constant discipline, and a strong will can be overwhelming for some individuals.
However, it is imperative to acknowledge and emphasize that Stoicism stands as a profoundly valid and practical philosophy in our present day. Its enduring principles offer invaluable insights and profound guidance to those who resonate with its teachings. Stoicism's emphasis on rationality, inner calmness, and ethical behavior provides a powerful framework for navigating the intricate challenges of our modern society.
By embracing Stoic principles, individuals can cultivate a resilient and virtuous character, empowering themselves to confront the complexities of life with wisdom and equanimity. Stoicism equips us with practical tools to navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world, fostering a steadfast foundation rooted in reason and inner tranquility. As we grapple with the complexities and uncertainties of the modern era, Stoicism serves as an unwavering lighthouse, illuminating a path towards personal growth, ethical conduct, and profound fulfillment.
Hammond M. (2006) Marcus Aurelius Meditations Book, The Penguin Group.
Higginson T. (2014) Epictetus The Enchiridion, The Liberal Art Press Inc.
“Viable”: Oxford English Dictionary. (2021).
“Viable”. Cambridge Dictionary. (2021).
"Philosophy." Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 2022.
“Philosophy”: Oxford English Dictionary. (2021).
“Philosophy”. Cambridge Dictionary. (2021).