Stoicism For Gen Z

Stoicism For Gen Z
Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you’, famously said Epictetus. In this drop of a sentence the vast sea of stoic philosophy is encapsulated.

Although the school’s founder lived centuries earlier in the Hellenistic world, Zeno of Citium, different from Zeno of Elea known for his paradoxes, is widely regarded as the founder of the stoic strand of the three major schools in Hellenistic philosophy, others being the rival Epicureanism, and Skepticism.

Legend has it that once shipwrecked at Athens, Zeno got engrossed in the works of Xenophon and asked a local bookseller where he could find a man like Socrates? The shopkeeper pointed towards Crates of Thebes just who happened to pass by. Crates himself had been an understudy of Diogenes of Sinope, founder of Cynicism.

In a famous anecdote when Alexander visited Diogenes to ask if he could bestow any favours upon him the cynic answered that he should step aside and not obstruct his sunlight. Having received his early training from the cynics, Zeno later forsook the school owing to its complete rejection of societal norms which to a large degree demanded utter shamelessness. Hence stoicism became cynicism for the sophisticated. Zeno began teaching in a colonnade or porch which in ancient Greek roughly translates as Stoa Poikile.

Seneca the most prolific of all Stoic writers was a Roman senator and tutor to Emperor Nero, who later forced him to bleed to death by slitting his wrist for allegedly being involved in a palace conspiracy immortalising him in the fashion of Socrates, another martyr of philosophy.

In a letter (XI) to his friend Lucilius, Seneca hints at a concept of moral tutor whereby a person would imagine an ideal philosopher, dead or alive, to serve as a model for their own actions and whom they could turn to for counsel in matters that may perturb them. Seneca was immensely wealthy and lived in a luxurious palace for which he often showed his indifference. He also wrote at length against the maltreatment of slaves in Roman society and advocated for their equal status. Marcus Aurelius who was according to Edward Gibbon one of the Five Good Emperors became the great populariser of stoicism after his meditations which were journal entries that he made while fighting on the frontiers of empire against Germanic tribes. Nelson Mandela kept the Meditations by his side during 27 years of imprisonment.

The central virtues of stoicism are prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. It falls roughly under the branch of philosophy known as ethics which deals with the question of right and wrong action. Stoics glorify apathy but not towards fellow men but towards the vagaries of fortune. The Roman deity Fortuna is often depicted wearing a blindfold, for she can bless anyone as much as she is capable of destroying them.

This attitude corresponds with of Nietzsche’s Amor Fati which makes a case for wholesome embrace of one’s lot in life, for better or worse, since these are matters beyond our control. What we can reign over is our attitude towards these externalities facing adversity with the same equanimity as we would a windfall. In the words of Hamlet ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. We can also speculate that the early stoics incorporated Aristotelian concepts into their moral framework since one can come across numerous parallels and points of intersection between Nicomachean Ethics and writings of major stoic figures. Unfortunately, most of Aristotle’s writings got lost in the numerous burnings of the library of Alexandria and whatever we have left of them was handed down by the Arabs of the Islamic Golden Age.

The stiff upper lip came to define the British high culture during the Victorian era wherein public school curriculum comprised the study of Greek and Latin classics alongside cricket to chisel out the ideal gentleman. It was common practice in these schools to slide in a sheet of wood in the child’s tunic to correct their posture. Nurtured on Homer and Virgil these young men were ready to be sent out to govern some portion of the vast empire.

Commissioned by Louis XV Joseph-Marie Vien in 1965 painted an expressionless Marcus Aurelius, the paragon of stoic virtue, distributing bread to a distressed public reeling from the ravages of the pandemic of their times, the Antonine plague that decimated 10% of Rome’s population. In the last few years we have seen stoicism gaining currency in the woke quarters on social media most often quoted by motivational pages. A wider reading of stoics can reveal one how sensitive these people were to the disturbing realities of their times.

In essence it’s a practice in pacifying the feverish soul through mindfulness and acceptance. Psychologists are widely incorporating these techniques as part of cognitive behavioural therapy in disciplining the thoughts. With rising number of people battling mental health issues, stoicism has become ever more relevant since it is a philosophy far from vague abstractions that can be applied in everyday life.

In today’s fast paced life stoics teach us to slow down our thoughts to maintain order and spare time to ponder and evaluate the impressions prior to generating a response. As opposed to popular self-help books stoics preach detachment from worldly success and place attainment of personal virtue as the highest goal one should strive for.