These days, ‘stoicism’ is a term that, unfortunately, has been associated with ‘apathy’ and ‘lack of emotion.’ Most tend to discard the philosophy’s rather simplistic inception in Athens, 3 BCE. In a period incessant of reflections and knowledge in the quest to understand the universe, one philosopher by the name of Zeno of Citium would make a groundbreaking discovery on the origin of ethics and logic, that would undoubtedly spark the teachings of modern stoicism for millennia. Throughout history, millions have adopted the understanding of stoicism for business and lifestyle, most notably Warren Buffett, John Steinbeck, and Theodore Roosevelt. Even Batman.
But first, a little backstory.
While visiting a bookstore in Athens after a dreary trip from Cyprus, Zeno was introduced to the philosophical teachings of Socrates, who was no less of a public figure in Athenian society. He became entranced by the disciple of philosophy and the thirst to provide expressive yet logical answers to life’s biggest questions. Zeno questioned the ideals of virtue and ethics, and would eventually branch out to the physics of the universe. His school, a modest establishment in the beginning, would be the center of his teachings for years to introduce and revolutionise stoicism.
Zeno’s original works did not survive the tests of time, as it would slip away to the chasm of lost history. Nevertheless, Zeno remains a prominent innovator in philosophy, as other minds such as Diogenes would go to elaborate on his teachings further. While the true definition of stoicism has been skewed over time, most of its ideals are held intact.
For stoicism, in its fundamental shell, can be constructed by its virtues. The first is wisdom, or to know not only what to speak but when most appropriate. “We have two ears and a mouth for a reason.” Wisdom is about attaining a deeper understanding of knowledge; a parrot can reiterate Annabel Lee flawlessly, but will never understand the weightage of the text.
Next is temperance, or to let go of materialism and incessant obsession for pleasure. The acclaimed Roman general Marcus Aurelius, another disciple of stoicism, was so vehement about falling to temperance, that whenever he would return to Rome to triumph and parades, he had a servant following him while whispering the phrase “Memento Mori” – or Remember you will die in his ear. Wealth and possession can never follow to the afterlife; even the most exorbitant diamonds will be left behind. Therefore, it is foolish to invest time in the pursuit of such possessions; rather, the stoic invests him/herself in the pursuit of wisdom.
Justice best resembles an umbrella term for several sub-virtues. It is an amalgamation to lead a life with logic, critical thinking, compassion, and fairness. A stoic must not allow radical emotions cloud his/her judgment and only believe in the facts, regardless of who they support. A stoic must derive to conclusions based on evidence and not seek for evidence based on conclusions (subjective bias to be precise). In the Information Age, where ‘fake news’ and misinformation spread like the plague, one must now be more critical of the news they consume.
The last of the four is strength, although not confined to physical. A stoic must treat his/her mind and body as a machine, one that must be conditioned and taken care of regularly. Temperance comes in once again with its restraint on liquor and tobacco as carcinogens. Mental and emotional strength are closely tied in with the previous virtues. Rather than getting swayed by emotion, the stoic will assess the situation by the unbiased numbers (Politics is a game of feelings, and that’s why many feel so passionate about their political views). In addition, he/she must remain calm and collective in the face of adversary and pressure, which is often times confused as ‘apathy’ and ‘soulless’. The stoic mustn’t express extreme emotions to everyday encounters for endurance is enough.
These four virtues have been the base of Zeno’s philosophy ever since he first stood to the podium to his pupils. In the midst of a global pandemic, where one struggles to discern facts from fiction with clouds of fear and anxiety, I encourage you to pursue stoicism to live a life of fulfilment. A universe governed by the principles of nature, in a scientific and logical manner, cannot be comprehended to its fullest without the disciples of stoicism.