Nietzsche’s thought experiment to determine our own greatness.
Possibly under the influence of Plato, who was himself influenced by Pythagoras, the Stoics held that the universe undergoes cycles, being periodically destroyed in a great conflagration [Greek, ekpyrosis] and then reborn, ad infinitum.
Because God, being perfectly rational, is bound to make the same choices, each cosmic cycle plays out similarly or even identically, so that the world as we know it, with us in it, existed in the previous cycle and will recur in the next.
In around 200 CE, the philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote: “[Chrysippus and the Stoics] hold that after the conflagration all the same things come to be again in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in the world…”
In his Letters, the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) tells Lucilius: “Things that vanish from our sight are merely stored away in the natural world: they cease to be, but they do not perish… the day will come again that will return us to the light. It is a day that many would refuse, except that we forget everything before returning.”
This concept of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is even echoed in the Bible:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).
In the City of God Against the Pagans (426 CE), St. Augustine seeks to deny that these and other such verses refer to eternal return. If “the wicked walk in a circle,” says Augustine, “this is not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous.”
In the 19th century, Nietzsche used eternal return as a thought experiment, as perhaps the Stoics had done, to determine the degree to which our individual will is aligned with the will of the world.
How, asks Nietzsche, would we feel if a daemon visited us one night and told us that we will have to live out our life over and over again? Would we feel joy, or desperation?
In the chapter of Ecce Homo (1908) entitled, Why I Am so Clever, Nietzsche says, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati [love of fate]: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”
In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra who was punished for resisting the gods by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. Camus concludes, “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.
Or, in those wonderful words of Virgil, “The only hope for the doomed is no hope at all.”
Stoicism’s surprising influence on religion, politics, and mental healthcare.
In the Classical World, the old religion privileged ritual over doctrine, and educated people turned instead to philosophy for guidance and consolation. In the imperial period, Stoicism rose into the foremost philosophy among the Roman elite. It was, in a sense, the real religion of ruling Romans, including, under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor himself.
From this highpoint, Stoicism gradually lost ground to Christianity, but at the same time worked its way into the incipient religion. Paul the Apostle had met some Stoics while in Athens, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks [sic.], encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say?” Early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen were steeped in Stoicism, as were, two centuries later, Ambrose and Augustine.
The influence of Stoic philosophy is felt even in the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of John opens with the verse, “In the beginning was the Word [Greek, Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The logos, according to the Stoics, consists of creative fire, or pneuma [“spirit”], the ancestor, perhaps, of the Holy Spirit.
Broader points of parallel between Christianity and Stoicism include that God is a benevolent creator, that each of us has a divine element, and that we ought to pursue virtue and love one another. The resemblances are such that, in the sixteenth century, the Flemish Catholic philosopher Justus Lipsius, who lived in a time of great strife and schism, sought to harmonize Christianity with Stoicism to create a more secular ethics—inaugurating the Stoic revival known as Neostoicism.
It is tempting to ask why Christianity eclipsed Stoicism at all. In addition to the more philosophical elements, Christianity offered mythology and mysticism, including the promise of an afterlife, which enabled it to speak to many more people. With its broad appeal, Christianity also served to repair a split in society by bringing the people and their leaders back under the banner of a single creed.
This ties up with a criticism of Stoicism, namely, that it is elitist. A philosophy that is all about ruling oneself probably speaks more to the ruling classes. On the other hand, the great Stoic teacher Epictetus began life as a slave, and, by Stoicism, rose into an elite. If Stoicism is elitist, it is more because it appeals to temperaments that are already of a certain disposition, to Catos more than to Caesars, and to Senecas more than to Neros. As Seneca says, “Philosophy shines for all. Socrates was no patrician; Cleanthes hauled water… Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it… Everyone has the same number of ancestors. There is no one whose origins lie anywhere but in oblivion.”
Politics and ideas
Today, Stoicism also appeals most often to men, especially young men, in search of a masculine ideal of composure, resilience, self-sufficiency, and so on. But Stoicism is “virile” only in that mastery has historically been associated with men. There is, despite the obvious potential, very little about “manliness” in the primary Stoic sources, and the Stoics were remarkably egalitarian for their age.
People concerned with virility tend to the right of the political spectrum. While Spartanism has long been associated with the far right, Stoicism has not shared in the same fate, probably on account of its strong cosmopolitan strand—which might even have endeared it to the left, had it not been for its dogmatic disregard for a person’s external circumstances.
Outside of the Church, Stoicism also exerted an important influence on the history of ideas, including on the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill, who, in On Liberty (1859), hailed the Meditationsof Marcus Aurelius as “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”
The few failings which are attributed to him, were all on the side of indulgence: while his writings, the highest ethical product of the ancient mind, differ scarcely perceptibly, if they differ at all, from the most characteristic teachings of Christ. (On Liberty, II)
Despite its influence and importance, the study of Stoicism has long been left out of university curricula, perhaps because its more theoretical texts have all been lost, or, more likely, out of academic snobbery for a philosophy that is practical and accessible, and tainted by the “unimaginative” Romans.
In politics and government, the shining example of Cato inspired the American revolutionaries to fight for their own Republic, which they created in the image of Cato’s—even debating whether the executive branch would not be better represented by two consuls, rather than the president that they finally settled for. George Washington staged a play about Cato at Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War. When he died, Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his bedside table.
The freedoms that we in the West have come to enjoy—and that many people, in Russia, in China, and elsewhere, still do not—owe in no small part to the mark left by Cato and his fervent defense of the Roman Republic.
Over the past two thousand years, humanity has made a great deal of progress in science and technology, but very little in politics. The world, now armed with nuclear weapons, is still crying out, American included, for fail-safe systems of government. That, surely, is not beyond us.
In the field of mental health, Stoicism inspired what has become the most common form of talking treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)—showing that people can derive some benefit from “elitist” Stoic principles without needing to be familiar with the underlying philosophy.
Aaron Beck (d. 2021), the father of CBT, wrote that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.” Albert Ellis (d. 2007), the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy, a precursor to CBT, frequently cited the Stoics, and was especially taken by a line from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them.”
But CBT is only a form of firefighting, and hardly fulfils the true promise of Stoicism, which is for integral mental health and more.
Other forms of talking treatment often involve “looking in,” sometimes to the point of navel-gazing, but Stoicism, like Eastern philosophy, suggests that the answer lies rather in looking out, or looking in only insofar as it can help to look out and dissolve the boundary between in and out.
The relentless positive thinking that pervades popular self-help books is similarly unhelpful, serving only to tide us to the next crisis, for which it lays the ground.
Long-term mental health relies instead on coming to terms with reality, including that of our own mortality. It is only by coming to terms with reality that we can, ourselves, become real.
What we can learn from Stoicism’s most striking image.
The metaphor of the archer features in Cicero’s On the Ends of Good and Evil, a Socratic dialogue dedicated to Brutus, murderer of Caesar, in which Cicero, through a number of mouthpieces, expounds and critiques the central tenets of the three main philosophies of his day: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and a version of Platonism.
Cicero puts the metaphor of the Stoic archer in the mouth of his contemporary and ally, the Stoic statesman Cato the Younger (although it is, in fact, older than both of these men):
Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought. (On Ends, III, 22)
The metaphor encapsulates the essence of Stoic action. The archer does everything he can to shoot accurately: his bow is well strung, his arrows are carefully calibrated, and he has taken full account of the prevailing wind and other variables.
Even so, the arrow may not hit the bullseye, or even the target. As soon as it leaves him, the arrow, and with it the success of his action, is no longer within the control of the archer, but subject to outside forces such as a sudden change in wind speed or direction.
Similarly, having decided upon the optimal course of action, the good Stoic carries it out to the best of her ability. But whether the enterprise is ultimately successful is subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable external factors (or “externals,” as the Stoics called them). Thus, the good Stoic bases her self-worth and happiness not on the success of her actions, but on their correctness.
In the words of Seneca:
The wise person considers intention, rather than outcome, in every situation. The beginnings are in our power; the results are judged by fortune, to which I grant no jurisdiction over myself… Death at the hands of a robber is not a condemnation. (Letters to Lucilius, 14).
This is not quite saying that we must do the right thing, but that the right thing is the most that we can do—and is therefore all we need concern ourselves with.
Chance, says Seneca, has a great deal of power in our lives, “necessarily so, since it is by chance that we are alive.” When it comes to things over which we do not have complete control, we play our part, we do our best, like the Stoic archer, but we do not fret over the outcome—which, if we have done our best, is no reflection on us.
Thus, we seek to be loveable, not to be loved, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not. Or, we seek to write well, not to become a bestselling author, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not.
So long as we focus on the things that are within our control, we will be calm and happy. But if we start concerning ourselves with things that are outside our control, we will become anxious and angry and miserable, and all on false grounds.
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories, which features an archer on the cover.
As the author of a book on Stoicism, I am always asked, “What’s the difference between ancient Stoicism (with a capital ‘S’) and modern stoicism?” The difference matters because people ordinarily assimilate the two, and dismiss the first on account of the second.
At the heart of ancient Stoicism is the notion that human beings ought to act in accord with their nature, which means two things.
First, we are social animals designed to work together “like hands, feet, or eyelids.” “Human nature,” said the Stoic teacher Musonius (d. 95 CE), “is very much like that of bees. A bee is not able to live alone; it perishes when isolated. Indeed, it is intent on performing the common task of members of its species—to work and act together with other bees.”
When we behave with naked selfishness, we are no longer being human—and it is only by being human, that is, by cooperating for the greater good, that we can be happy and fulfilled.
Second, while ants and bees, and maybe even wolves, may be more social than human beings, we are by a country mile the most rational of all animals, so that reason might be said to be our distinctive or defining function. Just as leopards ought to excel at running if they are to count as good leopards, so human beings ought to excel at reasoning if they are to count as good human beings.
If we aim instead to excel at running or swimming or making money, we have not adequately understood what it means to be a human being. Thus, of one who boasted of his diving, Aristippus asked, “Are you not ashamed to be proud of that which a dolphin can do?”
As human beings, we ought at every moment to be rational and social. Unfortunately, we are all too readily waylaid by unwise attachments and the destructive emotions to which they give rise. These attachments dangle the promise of pleasure or happiness but really offer only slavery—whereas, if only we could see it, nothing leads to pleasure and happiness as surely as reason and self-control.
Today, most people’s conception of Stoicism is coloured by modern stoicism, that is, the simple suppression or closeting of emotions. This misleading modern derivation originated in the sixteenth century and should not be confused with the much older philosophical movement. The Stoic is not without emotions, but, ideally, without painful or unhelpful emotions such as anger, envy, and greed.
To be without emotion, were that even possible, would be to be reduced to the inanimate state of a tree or a rock, whereas the Stoic seeks, on the contrary, to exist and excel as a human being. Thus, the Stoics invited positive and prosocial emotions such as compassion, friendship, and gratitude, which pour out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Already in Book 1, Marcus praises his tutor Sextus of Chaeronea for being “free from passion and yet full of love.”
Today, those familiar with Stoicism often came to it in a crisis but soon discovered that it is about much more than firefighting or even longer-term resilience building.
While I was writing Stoic Stories, a buttoned-up surgeon put me on the spot by asking how stoicism, the modern disposition, differs from Stoicism, the ancient philosophical movement. I ventured in reply: “Modern stoicism is about maintaining a stiff upper lip, whereas ancient Stoicism is about seeking to maintain the ultimate perspective on everything, which then raises many interesting questions.”
Unlike many modern interventions, Stoicism is not merely about feeling better, but about being better—which is, all considered, the surest way of feeling better, and not just better but better than ever before.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was succeeded by his long-time student Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330-c. 230 BCE).
Originally a boxer, Cleanthes arrived in Athens with no more than four drachmas to his name. He studied first under Crates the Cynic and then under Zeno, recording their teachings on oyster shells or blade bones because he could not afford papyrus. Other students called him “the ass” on account of his sluggishness, but he took pride in this, saying that it implied that he could withstand any load that Zeno put upon him.
To support himself, Cleanthes worked all night carrying water, digging the earth, and milling grain. Because he seemed to do nothing all day other than study philosophy, he was hauled before the Areopagus [the Athenian judicial council] to account for his way of life. He called to witness the gardener for whom he worked, and the woman who sold the flour that he milled, and his diligence so impressed the judges that they voted him the sum of ten minae [a thousand drachmas]. Even as head of school, he continued, between teaching and writing, to work with his hands, earning him another, this time laudatory, nickname, “the Second Hercules.”
Cleanthes loved poetry. He used to say that, just as the strictures of a trumpet can transform our breath into music, so the constraints of verse can heighten our thoughts—thereby echoing the Stoic principle that it is life’s obstacles that enable us to soar. He held that human beings naturally incline towards virtue, and remain incomplete without it, “like half lines of iambic verse.” One day, the playwright Sositheus attacked him from the stage with the line, “Driven by Cleanthes’ folly like dumb herds,” but he simply sat there in silence, without so much as altering his countenance, so that the audience applauded him and heckled Sositheus off the stage. When Sositheus later came to apologize, he brushed it off as but a minor slight.
The physical exertion and calm demeanour paid off, and Cleanthes lived into his hundredth year. In the end, gingivitis [inflammation of the gums] compelled him to fast for two whole days, after which he never ate again, saying that he was so far down the road to death that it would be too much trouble to retrace his steps.
How might we deal with insults and put-downs as well as Cleanthes did?
Check the insult
The first step, I think, is to ascertain that the insult truly is an insult. Whenever someone insults us, we ought to consider three things: whether the substance is true, whom it came from, and why. If the substance is true or conceivably true, the person it came from is known to be fair-minded, and his or her motive is benevolent, then the insult is not an insult so much as a statement of fact, and, moreover, one that could be very helpful to us. Hence, we seldom take offence at our parents or teachers, whom we know to have our best interests at heart. More generally, if we respect the person who seems to have insulted us, we ought to give careful thought to their remarks and learn as much as we can from them. If, on the other hand, we believe the person to be beneath our consideration, we have no reason to take offence, just as we have no reason to take offence at a naughty child or a barking dog. So, whatever the case, we have no reason to take offence.
Check our anger
Having ascertained that the apparent insult is a genuine one, we might respond in one of several ways. The untutored response is, of course, to get angry. Anger is the weakest possible response, and this for three main reasons: it reveals that we take the insult, and therefore the insulter, seriously; it suggests that there may be some substance to the insult; and it upsets and destabilizes us, which, as well as being unpleasant, invites further attacks, including, sometimes, physical attacks. Do we really want to end up in hospital, or in prison, because some idiot is behaving like an idiot? People have issues of their own that are nothing to do with us. If anything, they deserve our pity rather than our anger.
Check our impulse
An impulse that may or may not go with anger is to return the insult. Even in the absence of anger, there are some dangers with returning the insult. Our riposte has to be clever and cutting, or at least apt, and it has to occur to us at just the right moment. L’esprit de l’escalier [French, “staircase wit”] refers to the common experience of thinking too late of the perfect put-down. But even if we are as sharp-witted as Cato or Cicero, the perfect put-down is rarely the best response. The fundamental problem with the put-down, however brilliant it may be, is that it equalizes us with our insulter, bringing them up to our level and us down to theirs. This gives them, their behaviour, and their insult far too much credibility or legitimacy.
Find something to laugh about
In other words, the witty put-down should only ever be used for humour, when it is also at its most effective. Cato the Stoic was pleading a case when his adversary Lentulus spat in his face. After wiping off the spittle, Cato said, “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth. Gentle humour can be an effective response to an insult, and this for three main reasons: it undercuts the insulter and his or her insult, it brings any third parties on side, and it diffuses the tension of the situation. A similar strategy is to run with the insult and even add to it, in the genre, “Ah, if you knew me better, you would find greater fault still!”
Better still, ignore the insult
Humour, unfortunately, shares some of the same drawbacks as returning the insult. Our comeback has to be well-timed, well-judged, well delivered. All this requires precious mental energy, which we would do better to hold back for constructive purposes. Much easier, and, in fact, more powerful, is simply to ignore the insult, as Cleanthes did in the face of Sositheus. One day, a boor struck Cato while he was out at the public baths. When the boor realized that it was Cato whom he had struck, he came to apologize. Instead of getting angry or simply accepting the apology, Cato said, “I don’t remember being struck.” Subtext: “You are so insignificant to me that I don’t even care to register your apology, let alone take offence at your insult.” In ignoring our insulter we must take care not to seem haughty, which would amount to returning the insult. It can help at this point to recall the bigger picture, to remind ourself of what it was we were doing, for example, going to the baths, and to get on with it.
We need never take offence at an insult. Offence exists not in the insult but in our reaction to it, and our reactions are completely within our control. It is unreasonable to expect a boor to be anything but a boor; if we take offence at his bad behaviour, we have only ourself to blame.
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