Charles Handy reflects on his new favourite philosophers, the Stoics
My current hero is Epictetus. He was the great philosopher of the Stoics in ancient ethics. Now the Stoics had an idea that the world was underpinned by what you might call the natural order of things. Just look at nature: spring follows winter which is followed by summer and then by autumn and then things die off in the winter.
So when you look out of a train window (or did) and see a lovely green field which will in August turn golden and be absolutely beautiful and then be harvested, turned into wheat and eventually into flour to make to make us our bread … that is part of the natural order of things.
In Greek the word is logos, which is normally translated as “word”, but actually they meant something much bigger, let us just call it “the natural order of things”. In fact, for short, they called it God, and, they’d say, if you want to look at God, look at nature and look at nature when you want to look at yourself. You are all part of the natural order of things.
So, like that wheat field, in due course, your earthly existence will be over. But your time is not yet finished; you have yet to be turned into memories and the stardust from which you originally came. Just like the wheat, it isn’t finished until it is reaped and processed. And I’m not finished until I am reaped by the great reaper and my words have been turned into memories.
So strangely, a lot of the Stoics were in a sense Christians because they believed that God was represented by the natural order of things. If you look at nature, that is God. And it is amazing. Look at a silver birch tree. They look absolutely lovely but you could not possibly catch the glorious detail of each of them even if you were a wonderful painter or artist. Every single leaf is different and yet all the leaves are in a sense of a kind, rather like human beings.
In due course, those leaves on the birch trees will turn golden brown and eventually drop off and lie on the pathway beneath them, to be swept up and put on the pile to be burnt, just like me. But at the moment, I am a human being like everybody else but I hope, in some way, uniquely different. Charles Handy, not Tom Bailey.
I find that quite consoling, actually. And it is funny, I believe that a lot of the Christian writers were also Stoics or followers of Epictetus. Take St John of the Gospel. If you remember, it is translated “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Now was there anything that was not part of the word of God etc And the Greek for the word was logos, but if you retranslate logos as “the natural order of things”, you get “in the beginning was the natural order of things, and the natural order of things was with God, and the natural order of things was God and there was nothing that was not in the natural order of things and God.”
And that makes a lot of sense to me. So if I walk in the woods, I am walking with God and that feels very good. The perfection of each leaf and the fact that each leaf is perfect but different and still they are all the same in a fundamental way – I find that very reassuring.
So ponder that today – you are unique as you are one of a kind and you are all subject to the natural order of things. Yes, I am sorry, you too will die but you will live on processed into the memory of things by the people who knew you and loved you. That is your after life, that’s your new life, that’s the end of your proper life. That is what you are there for, part of the natural order of things.
Charles Handy is one of the giants of contemporary thought. His books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. This piece was dictated as Charles suffered a stroke last year following the death of his wife in a car crash.