Why modern Stoicism misses the point

26 May|Mark Vernon

An 18th century drawing of Epictetus, the disabled Roman guru of Stoicism

There is more to Stoicism than self-control, says Mark Vernon. It is about surrendering to the divine will

The wonderful British Library is celebrating its Greek manuscripts collection. Its copy of The Handbook (or Enchiridion) of Epictetus is a showcase piece. And I hope the online resource encourages people to read this slave-cum-scholar-cum-stoic. It will show them how etiolated modern Stoicism has become, and how challenging the way of life advocated by Epictetus and his fellows, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, really was. It’s only in this challenge that it has anything striking and useful to say to us today.

Stoicism now focuses on Epictetus’ best known remark. It’s commonly glossed thus: “it’s not what happens to you that matters but how you respond that matters.” It’s the basis of a thousand self-help books. Try to control what you can, not what you can’t, which in practice means, monitor mindfully how you react to events. As for the rest, go with the flow.

It’s the advice behind today’s virtue à la mode, resilience: grin and bear it. Little wonder big corporates pay good money for seminars teaching such passivity. It’s compliance dressed up as a philosophy. The slave-cum-scholar-cum-stoic secures your future as a wage slave. Only, something crucial to Epictetus has been stripped out.

What Stoicism-lite removes is the cosmic view that informed his advice. He was convinced that the ways of the world and the universe were determined by an omnipresent, omnipotent force. Stoics called it the Logos. It was divine. It was irresistible. And crucially, it was benign.

In other words, Epictetus was not saying happiness is found by focusing on what you can control – which, after all, in a consumer society can often feel like quite a lot, so long as you have cash in your pocket and wifi to an online store. Rather, he was saying: “Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of your desire, but by the removal of your desire,” as he himself glossed the counsel. “Don’t ask that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well,” he puts it in another place.

Now, that is a whole lot more challenging. It goes to the heart of what we today take to be the essence of autonomy; of humanity. Remove your desire? Abandon your freedom? Give up your will? In a godless cosmos, red in tooth and claw, governed by the ruthless laws of evolutionary survival, your desire, freedom and will are all you have. Nietzsche, the herald of the death of God, saw through Stoicism-lite:

“You desire to LIVE according to Nature? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power – how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature?”

Nietzsche was quite right – if, indeed, nature is indifferent and extravagant in its purposelessness, pitilessness, injustice. That’s our take on nature, or at least it’s the one sanctioned by today’s high priests, the scientists, with their creed of mechanistic materialism. But Epictetus’ sense of the cosmos wasn’t like that at all.

And herein lies his real challenge. Not the resilience. Not the complacent fantasy of self-control. It’s his advocacy of God. Here’s how he puts it:

“What else am I, a lame old man, capable of except singing hymns to God? If I were a nightingale, I would do the nightingale’s thing, and if I were a swan, the swan’s. Well, I am a rational creature; so I must sing hymns to God. This is my task: I do it, and I will not abandon this position as long as it is granted me, and I urge you to sing this same song.”

Marcus Aurelius agreed: “You must consider the doing and perfecting of what the universal nature decrees in the same light as your health, and welcome all that happens, even if it seems harsh, because it leads to the health of the universe, the welfare and well-being of God. For he would not have allotted this to anyone if it were not beneficial to the whole.”

Seneca fleshed out why it is a beautiful, rational and therapeutic way to live: “If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of God. If a cave, made by the crumbling of rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of a deity’s existence.” This is what you see if you give up seeing only what you think you should see.

Stoicism proper is about aligning your life to the Logos. The all-powerful God has its way anyway. Only the divine knows best. So give up your desire and desire what God determines. Then you will begin to perceive God in all things, in every tree, in every mountain, in other souls.

It’s hard. But Epictetus’ point is profound. Without a transcendent perspective on life’s harshness, without trust in an unfolding higher than human vision, all we have is our desire, our frightened calls for control, our empty cries for freedom echoing about in the indifferent void. If you can feel the force of that thought, you can feel the depth of what Epictetus was driving at.