Tag Archives: stoic

The Enchiridion, by Epictetus: V

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. When then, we are impeded or dis­turbed or grieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions. It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself.

The Enchiridion, by Epictetus: IV

When you are going to take in hand any act, remind yourself what kind of an act it is. If you are going to bathe, place before yourself what happens in the bath: some splashing the water, others pushing against one another, others abusing one another, and some stealing: and thus with more safety you will undertake the matter, if you say to yourself, I now intend to bathe, and to maintain my will in a manner con­formable to nature. And so you will do in every act: for thus if any hindrance to bathing shall happen, let this thought be ready; it was not this only that I intended, but I intended also to maintain my will in a way conformable to nature; but I shall not maintain it so, if I am vexed at what happens.

The Enchiridion, by Epictetus: III

In everything which pleases the soul, or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to add this to the (description, notion): What is the nature of each thing, beginning from the smallest? If you love an earthen vessel, say it is an earthen vessel which you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being whom you are kissing, for when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed.

The Enchiridion, by Epictetus: II

Remember that desire contains in it the profession (hope) of obtaining that which you desire; and the profession (hope) in aversion (turning from a thing) is that you will not fall into that which you attempt to avoid: and he who fails in his desire is unfortunate; and he who falls into that which he would avoid, is unhappy. If then you attempt to avoid only the things contrary to nature which are within your power, you will not be involved in any of the things which you would avoid. But if you attempt to avoid disease or death or poverty, you will be unhappy.

Take away, then, aversion from all things which are not in our power, and transfer it to the things contrary to nature which are in our power. But destroy desire completely for the present. For if you desire anything which is not in our power, you must be unfortunate: but of the things in our power, and which it would be good to desire, nothing yet is before you. But employ only the power of moving toward an object and retiring from it; and these powers indeed only slightly and with exceptions and with remission.

The Enchiridion, by Epictetus: I

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, what­ever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others.

Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

If then you desire (aim at) such great things, remember that you must not (attempt to) lay hold of them with a small effort; but you must leave alone some things entirely, and postpone others for the present. But if you wish for these things also (such great things), and power (office) and wealth, perhaps you will not gain even these very things (power and wealth) because you aim also at those former things (such great things): certainly you will fail in those things through which alone happiness and freedom are secured. Straightway, then, practice saying to every harsh appearance, You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be. Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to the things which are not in our power: and if it relates to anything which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not con­cern you.

Stoic Films: The Great Escape

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen

Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Hicks (Steve McQueen) in The Great Escape

The Great Escape is a classic war film, inspired by a real-life breakout from the Stalag Luft III POW camp in World War II. Although the film took some typical Hollywood liberties with the story, it remains an excellent portrayal of the quintessential British stiff upper lip.

The story begins in 1943. The Germans, constantly hunting escaped Allied prisoners of war, decide to build a new high security POW camp where they can detain the most frequent escapees. Their plan is to keep all their “rotten eggs in one basket”. The camp has watchtowers covering all angles inside the perimeter, layers of barbed wire fencing, and listening devices planted in the ground to pick up the sounds of digging.

Almost immediately the prisoners start trying to escape, by hiding in trucks leaving the camp, and even marching straight out the gates. The prison guards immediately foil these impulsive attempts. The Kommandant tells the men that they will be in the camp for a long time, and should occupy themselves with the leisurely past-times on offer. Amongst the new arrivals are ingenious Squadron Leader Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and cocksure American pilot Hilts (Steve McQueen). Hilts is determined to escape as soon as possible, and attempts various quick getaways, only to be recaptured soon after getting out. His behaviour lands him in solitary confinement, “The Cooler”.

Bartlett is more patient, and sets about organising a complicated mass breakout involving three tunnels; Tom, Dick and Harry. The men have to dig deep to avoid the listening devices, and must find a way to deposit the large amounts of soil. Unlike Hilts, Bartlett understands the need to appear to be playing by the rules; if the men seem to be devoting themselves to past-times like gardening, choir practice and bird-watching classes, they can lull the Germans into a false sense of security. On the other hand, he tolerates, and encourages, Hicks to continue with his quick schemes; the guards would be suspicious if there were no breakout attempts.

Plot spoilers follow.

One of the tunnels has been discovered, and the other abandoned. The men put all their energy into the remaining one. Eventually they dig past the perimeter, and escape is possible. The forgers have created all the necessary identification documents, and the tailors have modified the men’s uniforms to look like civilian clothes.

As the men line up in the tunnel on the night of the escape, a terrible discovery is made. The tunnel is shorter than previously thought, and falls far short of the cover of the woods. Anyone who climbs out of the hole could be spotted by a guard. The entire operation looks like it is in jeopardy. Bartlett behaves very stoically in this moment. When someone asks how the length of the tunnel could have been so drastically miscalculated, Bartlett says that it doesn’t matter how; it has already happened and is therefore out of their control. He knows that he cannot change the facts of the matter, and does not let the situation dampen his resolve. He orders the escape to go ahead, as all the documents are dated to that day. This is their only opportunity.

By timing the movements the guards, the men emerge from the tunnel one by one, and make a dash for the woods. All is going well until one man trips, and inadvertently alerts the guards. The escape is quickly stopped. 76 men got away. Travelling in pairs or alone, the escapees must make their way to the neutral countries. Some hitch a ride, some take the train, some steal a fighter plane, and Hilts famously drives across the fields in a German motorbike, leading to the film’s iconic chase sequence.

In the end, all but three of the men are recaptured. As Bartlett and 49 others sit in the back of a German truck, expecting to be delivered back to the camp, he reflects on the mission. Although the have been caught, he believes that the escape was a success. They proved that the camp was not as secure as the Luftwaffe thought, they distrusted the German army, and most importantly, they led many soldiers on a chase which caused a large-scale distraction when those troops could have been fighting the Allies.

In the film’s bleakest moment, the 50 men are let out to stretch their legs, and are promptly gunned down by the Germans. Back at the camp, the remaining POWs are informed that Bartlett and the others were “shot while trying to escape”. They see through this lie immediately, but are powerless to do anything.

As a result of the escape, the camp Kommandant is relieved of his position in disgrace. As he is about to be escorted from the camp, Hilts is brought back, unhurt, and promptly sent to the cooler. The bittersweet ending is capped by a dedication to the real life 50.

The Allied officers in The Great Escape are prime examples of stoicism in action. They do not let imprisonment sink their spirits, and they remain resolute throughout the ordeal. That is not to say they all behave stoically; one man, Ives, cannot stand the oppressive conditions in the cooler. He lets the situation drag him down, and as a result of his desperation, his part ends in tragedy. Danny the tunnel digger (Charles Bronson playing against type) also faces great anxiety (he appears to suffer from claustrophobia), but tries his best to keep it under control. Eventually he has a breakdown, and almost jeopardises the operation, but with help and understanding from the other men, he is able to pull through.

The most impressive character in the film is Bartlett. As the leader of the escape, it falls to him to make the difficult decisions. He carries a huge weight on his shoulders, but always stays calm and collected in front of the men. His final moments on-screen cement him as a great stoic character. The Great Escape is a perennial feature on British television, where its “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos is greatly admired, but one does not need to be British to appreciate the stoic undercurrent of this deserving classic.

Anti-stoic article in the Guardian

I have mixed feelings about the Guardian, the mainstream left-wing newspaper from the United Kingdom. Although they publish some interesting and informative articles, (such as those on the MPs’ expenses scandal and the recent government intelligence revelations), so much of their content consists of opinion pieces. If the opinion is sensible and uncontroversial, then nobody pays it any attention, so the more badly-thought and outrageous the opinion, the more successful the article. These articles invariably lack anything resembling objectivity or research, and are gleefully designed to elicit a negative response from the readers (who flood to the comments section to voice their weary opposition to such transparent goading), thereby increasing page views. It is the same as trolling.

These are the actions one would associate with tabloids and, let’s be honest, blogs, not a supposedly “proper” paper (I do not think it is hypocritical to hold professionals published in a national newspaper to a higher standard than amateurs on the internet). An average piece by, say, Laurie Penny can be just as under-researched, exaggerated, and full of non-sequiturs and flawed conclusions as something by Richard Littlejohn in the Mail. The politics are different, but the tactics and the quality of writing are the same. I find the Guardian is increasingly relying on “columnism” more than journalism. From a newspaper which sees itself up as being above other papers, this is especially disappointing.

Lola Okolosie has recently written an article decrying stoicism (with a small “s”), subtitled “Men are hemmed in by narratives telling them that stoicism is manly.” Although it is nowhere near as bad as some of the paper’s offerings, I could not accept its premise. In Okolosie’s opinion, stoicism is a restrictive and outdated attribute, one which is forced on men as an unrealistic macho ideal. She believes this would be very bad for her young son, and wants him to grow up outside this supposedly restrictive system.

There are numerous problems with this position. For a start, I strongly disagree that stoicism is restrictive. Stoicism – in both its classical and modern definitions – does not imprison its practitioner. Quite the opposite; it frees one from harmful emotions. If carried out successfully, it stops us feeling negatively affected by external occurrences not in our control. Anyone who practises stoicism could tell you that rather than being restricting, it is actually liberating. Letting your emotions take hold of you and control your actions seems, to me, to place far greater restrictions on someone.

When she says: “Being stunted emotionally and unable to share meaningfully with family and friends isn’t what I want for my son”, I would agree. But I would then argue that being stoic is not the same as being emotionally stunted at all. A stoic understands emotions perfectly, and knows how to deal with them, whereas someone who is emotionally stunted is unequipped to deal with their feelings. Her sentence in this instance is correct, claiming that this is stoicism is not. There is nothing in a stoic mindset which would prevent anyone from being a caring, sharing, active part of their family.

In order to understand why the writer has come to these conclusions, we must examine the real reason behind the article: Okolosie does not like traditional masculinity. Why is this the case? We must look at the issue of equality. While all sensible people will accept that the undeniable fact that there are many and varied situations in which women have an unfair disadvantage as a result of institutional sexism, many people are less inclined to accept that there are also some situations in which men have an unfair disadvantage, such as divorce courts. Just as women are under-represented in the board room and the world of technology, men are over-represented in the homeless population, in workplace accidents, and in suicide figures.

There can be no true equality unless the balance is redressed for both groups. Thankfully, many feminists (male and female) have started to notice the areas of life where men suffer disproportionately, a welcome and overdue development, and are seeking to rectify this situation. But some strands of modern feminism blame all of society’s problems on The Patriarchy, as if it is an omnipresent force controlling everything, and are incapable of entertaining any other possible factors or reasons on a case by case basis. By this logic, if a woman suffers an injustice, it is because of the patriarchy (which may be the case, of course), but if a man suffers an injustice, it also must be because of the patriarchy. On these terms, men are expected to believe the ridiculous notion that anything bad that happens to them is ultimately their own collective fault, as if someone could be both victim and perpetrator. I find this very unfair, and completely unhelpful.

This sort of flawed thinking leads to articles like the one in question. The author has decided that the patriarchy is responsible for all ills, and has therefore come to the conclusion that masculinity is bad. In order to prove her point, she has scapegoated the supposedly masculine trait of stoicism – which in reality can be used freely by men or women – and completely misrepresented it in the process. What I find particularly worrying a piece from her closing remarks:

Raising someone not to be tempted by the privilege their “winkie” will be given in a society rife with gender inequality will be complicated. It will be worth it if I can raise my child to be free from the confines of traditional masculinity; that which continues to wreak havoc on so many lives, including that of “the man’s man”

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/07/cost-boys-traditional-view-masculinity-men-son

She wants her son to be free from traditional masculinity, of which she believes stoicism is part, but as I have demonstrated, she has not successfully proven why masculinity is bad; stoicism certainly isn’t. Imagine someone saying that being feminine is bad. Why should men have to abandon manly attributes, unless it is their choice to do so? Of course no-one should be forced to act in such a way, but neither should anyone be forced not to. She says she does not want her son to be held to restrictive ideals, yet she wishes to instill in him the idea that as a male, he has inherent unearned privilege, ie. she wants to make him feel guilty for being masculine.

As someone who wants equality (regardless of gender, ethnicity and just about any other category you care to mention), as someone who practises stoicism to the best of my abilities, and as someone who happens to be a man (and refuses to feel guilty about it), I found this article disagreeable in the extreme.

Seneca on Anger

From the 3rd book of the dialogues of Seneca to Novatus:

May it not be that, although anger be not natural, it may be right to adopt it, because it often proves useful? It rouses the spirit and excites it; and courage does nothing grand in war without it, unless its flame be supplied from this source; this is the goad which stirs up bold men and sends them to encounter perils. Some therefore consider it to be best to control anger, not to banish it utterly, but to cut off its extravagances, and force it to keep within useful bounds, so as to retain that part of it without which action will become languid and all strength and activity of mind will die away.

In the first place, it is easier to banish dangerous passions than to rule them; it is easier not to admit them than to keep them in order when admitted; for when they have established themselves in possession of the mind they are more powerful than the lawful ruler, and will in no wise permit themselves to be weakened or abridged. In the next place, Reason herself, who holds the reins, is only strong while she remains apart from the passions; if she mixes and befouls herself with them she becomes no longer able to restrain those whom she might once have cleared out of her path; for the mind, when once excited and shaken up, goes whither the passions drive it.

There are certain things whose beginnings lie in our own power, but which, when developed, drag us along by their own force and leave us no retreat. Those who have flung themselves over a precipice have no control over their movements, nor can they stop or slacken their pace when once started, for their own headlong and irremediable rashness has left no room for either reflexion or remorse, and they cannot help going to lengths which they might have avoided. So, also, the mind, when it has abandoned itself to anger, love, or any other passion, is unable to check itself: its own weight and the downward tendency of vices must needs carry the man off and hurl him into the lowest depth.

William Henley’s “Invictus” (Unconquered)

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.

The Catholic Encyclopedia 1913, on Stoicism

Stoics and Stoic Philosophy

The Stoic School was founded in 322 B.C. by Zeno of Cittium [sic] and existed until the closing of the Athenian schools (A.D. 429), (it took the name from the Stoa poikile, the painted hall or colonnade in which the lectures were held.) Its history may be divided into three parts: (1) Ancient Stoicism; (2) Middle Stoicism; (3) New Stoicism.

1. Ancient Stoicism (322-204)

Zeno of Cittium (b. 366; d. in 280) was the disciple of Crates the Cynic and the academicians Stilpo, Xenocrates, and Polemon. After his death (264), Cleanthes of Assium (b. 331; d. 232) became head of the school; Chrysippus of Soli (b. 280), succeeded and was scholarch until 204. These philosophers, all of Oriental origin, lived in Athens where Zeno played a part in politics and were in communication with the principal men of their day. The Stoic doctrine, of which Zeno laid the foundations, was developed by Chrysippus in 705 treatises, of which only some fragments have been preserved. In addition to the principles accepted by all thinkers of their age (the perception of the true, if it exists, can only be immediate; the wise man is self-sufficient; the political constitution is indifferent), derived from the Sophists and the Cynics, they base the entire moral attitude of the wise man conformity to oneself and nature, indifference to external things on a comprehensive concept of nature, in part derived from Heraclitus, but inspired by an entirely new spirit. It is a belief in a universal nature that is at one and the same time Fate infallibly regulating the course of events (eimarmene, logos); Zeus, or providence, the eternal principle of finality adapting all other things to the needs of rational beings; the law determining the natural rules that govern the society of men and of the gods; the artistic fire, the expression of the active force which produced the world one, perfect, and complete from the beginning, with which it will be reunited through the universal conflagration, following a regular and ever recurring cycle. The popular gods are different forms of this force, described allegorically in myths. This view of nature is the basis for the optimism of the Stoic moral system; confidence in the instinctive faculties, which, in the absence of a perfect knowledge of the world, ought to guide man’s actions; and again, the infallible wisdom of the sage, which Chrysippus tries to establish by a dialectic derived from Aristotle and the Cynics. But this optimism requires them to solve the following problems: the origin of the passions and the vices; the conciliation of fate and liberty; the origin of evil in the world. On the last two subjects they propounded, all the arguments that were advanced later up to the time of Leibniz.

2. Middle Stoicism (second and first centuries B.C.)

Stoicism during this period was no longer a Greek school; it had penetrated into the Roman world and had become, under the influence of Scipio’s friend, Panæ (185-112), who lived in Rome, and of Posidonius, (135-40) who transferred the school to Rhodes, the quasi-official philosophy of Roman imperialism. Its doctrines were considerably modified, becoming less dogmatic in consequence of the criticism of the new Academician, Carneades (215-129). In Stoic morality, Panæ develops the idea of humanity. Posidonius at once a savant, historian, geographer, mathematician, astronomer and a mystic who commenting on Plato’s works, revives his theories on the nature and destiny of the soul.

3. New Stoicism (to A.D. 429)

The new Stoicism is more ethical and didactic. Science is no longer the knowledge of nature, but a kind of theological summa of moral and religious sentiments. Very little has been preserved of the short popular treatises and discourses, wherein a vivid style introduced under the influence of the Cynic diatribe, the philosopher endeavored to render his ethical principles practical. The letters of Seneca (2-68) to Lucilius, the conversations of Musonius (time of Nero), and of Epictetus (age of Domitian), the fragments of Hierodcles (time of Hadrian), the members of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180), give but an incomplete idea. Stoicism, which generally disappeared as the official School, was the most important of the Hellenistic elements in the semi-oriental religions of vanishing paganism.


Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 14