And why it is the ultimate cool.

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Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher

Prior to the advent of Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, but, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools.

The four major philosophical schools of Western antiquity were cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism.

Despite each having their own outlook and approach, all four schools emphasized the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Probably the best way of grasping at this concept of ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is by looking at how it fitted into each of the four schools.

Cynicism

The first cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (d. 365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes (d. 323 BCE), the paradigm of the cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him ‘a Socrates gone mad’.

Diogenes held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. In fact, the term ‘cynic’ derives from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. Rather than pursuing wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, partaking in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, which he called the ‘false coins morality’. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.’ He used to stroll about in broad daylight brandishing a lit lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’

I mean, honestly, how much cooler can you get?

Stoicism

Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes (d. 285 BCE), who renounced a large fortune to live the cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male dress and lived on equal terms with her husband.

By the first century, Cynics could be found in cities throughout the Roman Empire. At that time, cynicism vied with stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized perspective, self-control, and fortitude, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius and senator Cato the Younger among its adherents.

Zeno of Citium (d. 262 BCE), the founder of stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of stoicism.

Here are five thoughts on ataraxia from the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

  • You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
  • If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
  • The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
  • It is not death that a man should fear, but never beginning to live.
  • Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

Skepticism

Skepticism and epicureanism also took off around the time of Alexander. Like the sophists whom he opposed, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia.

Pyrrho of Elis (d. 270 BCE) travelled with Alexander across Persia and into India, where he encountered various schools of thought, such as Hinduism and Buddhism and their sects, including the ‘naked wise men’ or gymnosophists, with a common emphasis on inner peace. After all, what is the Hindu nirvana if not complete ataraxia?

Blending East and West, Pyrrho came to believe that knowledge is impossible and urged suspension of judgement with the aim of exchanging anxiety and dogmatism for ataraxia.

The Pyrrhonian skeptic Sextus Empiricus (d. 210 CE) compared Pyrrho’s prescription for ataraxia to a real or fabled episode in the life of the painter Apelles of Kos. One day, Apelles was painting a horse but failed so completely to depict its froth that he gave up and flung his sponge at the picture—thereby accidentally achieving the desired effect.

In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus led to a resurgence of Pyrrhonian skepticism, and the work of Descartes—’I think therefore I am’, and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis… with roots in Ancient Athens and Ancient India.

Epicureanism

Like Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure and least pain.

Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and ataraxia.

‘If thou wilt make a man happy’ said Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

1920px-Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Love is a word with a meaning that has changed over time.

Today, we tend to think about love primarily in terms of romantic love.

But, if you consider it, the concept of romantic love barely features among the 66 books of the Bible. The two greatest “love” stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife, nor even of man and woman, but of man and man, and woman and woman: David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.

Instead, all love in the Bible is directed at God, and the love for the spouse, and more generally for the other, is subsumed under the love of God.

In the Sacrifice of Isaac (pictured), Abraham’s love for God trumps his love for his own son Isaac, whom he is willing to sacrifice for no other reason than that God commanded it.

In Ancient and medieval times, people did of course fall in love, but they did not believe that their love might in some sense save them, as we tend to today. When, in Homer’s Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, setting off the Trojan War, neither she nor he conceived of their attraction as pure or noble or exalting.

Over the centuries, the sacred seeped out of God and into romantic love, which came to take the place of the waning religion in lending purpose to our lives. People had once loved God, but now they loved love: more than with their beloved, they fell in love with love itself.

Abraham had surrendered himself and Isaac out of love for God. But in the Romantic era, around the time of the American and French Revolutions, love grew into all the opposite: a means of finding and validating oneself, of lending weight and texture and solidity to one’s life—as encapsulated by Sylvester’s 1978 hit, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), the final kissing scene in Cinema Paradiso, and countless other popular songs and films.

In the time of God, “finding oneself”—or, more accurately, losing oneself in God—had demanded years of patient spiritual practice. But after the French Revolution, romantic love could come to the rescue of almost anyone, with very little effort or sacrifice on their part. Being saved became simply a matter of luck.

If love is a word with a meaning that has changed over time, it is also a word with several meanings, one that points at several, quite distinct, concepts with only a family resemblance between them.

Unlike us, the Ancient Greeks had several words for love, enabling them to distinguish more clearly between the different types. Eros, for example, referred to sexual or passionate love; philia to friendship; storge to familial love; and agape to universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or God.

As I show in my new book, The Secret to Everything, having more words for “love” enables us to think and talk about love in new and different ways. For instance, people in the early stages of a romantic relationship often expect unconditional storge, but find only the need and dependency of eros, and, if they are lucky, the maturity and fertility of philia. Given enough time, eros tends to mutate into storge.

But if we are to understand the deep meaning of the word “love”, then we need to uncover what all these different types of love share in common. In other words, what is it that unites erosphiliastorge, and agape?

What all these instances of love have in common, I think, is a reaching out beyond our own being to things that are able to lend weight and meaning to our lives, and, at the same time, an incorporation of those things into our being—whence the hug, the love bite, and the sacramental bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Love is the force of nature that enables us to cross the boundary between ourselves and the world, like the lobster, to shed our shell and grow beyond it—which is why people with little love end up being so small.

Thanks to all those who gave me feedback on draft versions of the book cover.

Here’s the final version. I like it because it draws the eye in and engages the reader.

If you’d like to pre-order the ebook, you can do so by clicking here.

Publication date 10 April.

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