There’s been a lot of interest in reviving Stoic philosophy recently, particularly the therapeutic aspects of it. I’m skeptical about this, as in my view philosophy is primarily the attempt to understand, and as such is an activity of enquiry. There’s no guarantee that discovering how things are will benefit us psychologically: it might in fact make things much worse. As Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, it might not even be possible to confront the deeper truths of reality head-on. That would make human existence unbearable. What do you think?
We live in strange times. But few people could have expected today’s rise of a global movement of self-describing Stoic online communities numbering over 100,000 participants.
Legend tells that when the Romans defeated the slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus in 71 BCE, they searched in vain for the real Spartacus. Every captive proclaimed “I am Spartacus”, in a sublime gesture of solidarity.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.
What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, obviously the roads – the roads go without saying. How about guidance for how to live in the 21st century? That seems less likely, but in fact the last few years have seen a flurry of interest in the work of three Roman Stoic philosophers who offered just that. They were Seneca, tutor to the Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a former slave; and Marcus Aurelius, himself emperor.
Stoicism. The principle that emotional and physical self-control leads to inner peace and strength, allowing one to live a happier life.
“Know Thyself. Delphic Oracle.” This famous call to the examined life that Socrates answered and passed on to the world is reprinted on the title page of The Rule of Life, a forgotten but extraordinary book published in 1834. The book reminds us that a genre of popular literature, collections of moral maxims, helped keep alive the Socratic tradition of the examined life.