Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stoicism and the Modern Era

Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow'd.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Ah yes, very nice: manly, noble, heroic. This poem marks the poet's stoic attitude towards the amputation of his leg on account of tuberculosis, a disease which had troubled him since the age of twelve. (But, besides the whole "I'm missing a leg thing" it seemed to work out well enough: Henley wrote the above poem, perhaps the most famous thing he ever wrote; and Robert Louis Stevenson immortalized him further by basing the character "Long John Silver" on him. And they say Nelson Mandela kept a copy of the poem, written on a scrap of paper, during his incarceration.)

The above poem is just one piece of writing in a very long line to promote a strong-willed, unemotional, unflinching attitude towards life's troubles that we have come to call "stoic." This profound seriousness goes at least as far back as Socrates --it is difficult to imagine Socrates smiling, amiright?-- but Stoicism as we know it, as a full-fledged philosophy, did not emerge until the 3rd century BC, created by a Greek man named Zeno of Citium.

The philosophy seems to have taken off immediately, with just about all of Alexander's successors proclaiming themselves Stoics. However, nothing but fragments survive from the first two periods of Stoicism, and we have complete texts only from Stoics of the high Roman Empire, of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD: people like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. (Anyone hoping for a more serious discussion of Stoic beliefs should see "Stoicism," and the two related articles from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

I have known about the Stoics and their works since High School Latin class, and they have always produced from me a kind of ambivalence. Were they wise men or fools? And does such an unforgiving, so terribly masculine worldview have any place in today's society? But --who am I kidding-- I have always had a bit of the Stoic about myself: I use the term "pesky emotions" more often than most, and I have tendency to grow glassy-eyed when I think of the possibilities of self-sacrifice, against an insurmountable opponent for a cause I believe in deeply.

My great interest --no, it is not yet an obsession-- in Ancient Rome must surely add something to the flame. The Stoics embody --or try to embody-- all of the ideals, all the character and strength of a romantic, or else propagandic, view of the city and its empire. Have I lost you? Just imagine the smells: sweat, olives, and leather -- that is Romanticism. Now imagine the stench of piss and shit, rotting corpses, smoke --that is Realism.

Above all, the Stoics seem to be known for their heroic deaths. Seneca The Younger, accused by the tyrannical Emperor Nero of complicity in the Pisonian Conspiracy, was forced to commit suicide. He sat in a bath of warm water and slit his wrists, surrounded by a circle of friends, dictating his last commands to a scribe, stiff upper lip to the end. Cato, chased about the Empire by Julius Caesar, finally knifed himself in Utica. Then there is the so-called "Stoic Opposition," a group of senators who stood up to the emperors, especially during the reign of Domitian -- naturally, heads rolled.

The Stoics's tendency toward martyrdom, together with their strong moral codes, have lead many Christian writers to see them in a kind light. The "last bath" of Seneca, for example, has been seen as a disguised baptism, and Dante placed him in only the first circle of Hell -- the nicest, although it is still Hell. While other pagans were off to the gladiatorial events, wild parties, and crucifixions, Stoics tried their best to be good Christian men --they just didn't know it.

This generally approving view of the Stoics continued well through the Middle Ages, and culminated in the formation of Neostoicism in 1584. This revival movement didn't exactly make waves; however, many of the core principals of Stoicism continued to be held in high regard by some long into the modern era.

Some, however, have looked upon Stoicism with much disdain. I recently discovered some explicit talk of Stoicism in a story called "Ward 6," by Anton Chekhov. It has two principal characters: Dr. Andrey Yefimych Ragin , the superintendent of a hospital in a provincial town, and Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, a patient of Ward 6 --where the lunatics are kept. One day, the doctor stumbles into this ward and consequently discovers a partner for conversation in Gromov. Please allow us to listen in:

"There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this ward,' said Andrey Yefimitch. 'A man's peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.'

'You should go and preach that philosophy in Greece, where it's warm and fragrant with the scent of pomegranates, but here it is not suited to the climate...'"
counters Gromov, and continues by calling his conversation partner "flabby and lazy," along with further condemnations of his character. Then he has this to say about Stoicism:

The Stoics, whom you are parodying, were remarkable people, but their doctrine crystallized two thousand years ago and has not advanced, and will not advance, an inch forward, since it is not practical or living. It had a success only with the minority which spends its life in savouring all sorts of theories and ruminating over them; the majority did not understand it. A doctrine which advocates indifference to wealth and to the comforts of life, and a contempt for suffering and death, is quite unintelligible to the vast majority of men, since that majority has never known wealth or the comforts of life; and to despise suffering would mean to it despising life itself, since the whole existence of man is made up of the sensations of hunger, cold, injury, and a Hamlet-like dread of death. The whole of life lies in these sensations; one may be oppressed by it, one may hate it, but one cannot despise it. Yes, so, I repeat, the doctrine of the Stoics can never have a future; from the beginning of time up to to-day you see continually increasing the struggle, the sensibility to pain, the capacity of responding to stimulus.
This does nothing more for the doctor than amuse him: he does not take the warning Gromov, and ultimately Chekhov, are handing him. Things end badly for him: the doctor's new habit of regularly visiting Ward 6 is viewed with suspicion by his superiors and he is consequently fired from his position. Soon, he is lured into Ward 6 and locked in as an inmate; he dies shortly after from a stroke.

It is easy to sit on a perch -- to be the one of the richest men in the world, yet play at being poor. Philosophy, all philosophy is as much a luxury commodity as statuettes of gold. I often see it in this way. But Epictetus, at one point a slave who was heavily beaten and abused by his master, to the point of a permanent limp, gives that argument pause. I leave you with another quote:

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life.

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