“Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.” — Marcus Aurelius
As you may well know, stoicism is an Ancient Greek school of thought. It was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium, in the 4th century BCE. He began teaching his radical new philosophy, circa the year 300 before the common era. As part of this, according to Zeno, virtue is based on universal reason, and the wise live in harmony with their mostly predetermined fates. In this way, stoicism teaches one how to be calm and resilient when facing everyday struggles. Above all else, this is to be done with a patient and accepting attitude toward life. In this way, stoics are meant to be indifferent to vicissitudes of misfortune and discomfort. This is how a good stoic achieves a lasting state of serenity, within his or her own psyche. This is also why stoicism remains so relevant in the modern world. In fact, although stoicism may go out of fashion, from time to time, it will never go away altogether. Stoicism is becoming increasingly more popular in the 21st century, after having gone through decline throughout the 20th.
In regards to this, one of the most important stoics, of all time, was a man named Seneca the Younger. He was born in 4 BCE, the same year as Jesus of Nazareth. Regardless, his teachings were given mainly through a number of correspondence lessons. Which is to say that, Seneca wrote letters to many of his friends, to offer them council on different issues throughout the years. As an example, one such friend was a civil servant, named Lucilius. In his particular case, there was a lawsuit against him that threatened to ruin his reputation, thereby ending his political career. So, not knowing what to do, Lucilius wrote a letter to Seneca asking for his help. The thing was that, rather than telling his friend not to worry, the great philosopher instructed him to imagine the worst possible outcome, instead. Then, Lucilius was advised to convince himself that it would actually happen. Seneca felt that this kind of tolerance, of the worst of all possible worlds, should be the cornerstone belief of every stoic.
When you get right down to it, short of dying, anything you could ever go through is survivable. As Seneca wrote, “it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.” The point is not to just accept the fact that bad things will inevitably happen, but to realize that we can handle whatever life throws at us. Of course, the way the stoics see it, even if life gets so bad that it can’t be endured, there is always the possibility of suicide. Regardless, in asking Lucilius to become comfortable with the idea of being humiliated and impoverished, Seneca was really providing him with a path toward inner peace. This wouldn’t be the end of everything, and in many ways it would offer him a fresh new start. Lucilius was also able to draw strength from the knowledge that Seneca had once endured bankruptcy, and even exile, in the past. Things had turned out alright for Seneca, so why not Lucilius? By longing for that which is just, as well as preparing for that which is unjust, Lucilius was able to come to terms with his own personal situation. After all, this is what it truly means to be a good stoic.
In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.” When you think about it, this poetic adage is the key to success as a stoic, and the secret to happiness in general. So, get out there and embrace your lot in life, with open arms. There’s no point in getting sad, or even mad, about things that you can’t change. Just try to make the best of them. Your struggles should be as mountains to climb, not pits to fall into. Come on, what’s the worst that could ever really happen? No matter what, the bottom line is that you should hope for the best, but always expect the worst. To quote Seneca, “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.” He then goes on to say that, “Let us place before our eyes in its entirety the nature of man’s lot…not the kind of evil that often happens, but the very greatest evil that can possibly happen. We must reflect upon fortune fully and completely.”
The thing is that, for most people, it may not be enough to simply meditate on disaster, or ruminate on suffering, to achieve a sufficient level of tranquility. That’s why there are many other stoic techniques, that you can practice, in addition to this. For instance, some stoics spend a whole day living well beneath their means. As part of this, they might sleep on the floor one night and then wake up to nothing but stale crackers all day. The point is that, by doing things like walking rather than driving, when you don’t have to, you come to appreciate having a car more. This approach to life can then lead to ataraxia, which literally means “not perturbed”. It describes a lucid state of robust equanimity, often characterized by ongoing freedom from distress. In modern parlance, ataraxy refers to a condition of serene calmness. Moreover, achieving this peace of mind is the ultimate goal of stoics. It’s simple really, like Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others not.” Such is the wisdom of stoicism.
I think it’s worth noting that stoicism is what gave Marcus Aurelius the resolve he needed to rule the Roman Empire, for as long as he did. Then, centuries later, the Emperor’s journals served as inspiration to Nelson Mandela, during his 27-year imprisonment in South Africa. The whole point is that, in the end, it’s up to you to be happy about that which is in your control.