29th July 2020
Turning to the Stoic Philosophers in Covid Times
I first discovered the ancient Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius about 12 years ago vis the book “Meditations” and have carried it with me since. Written around 180AD, mostly while away at war in Macedonia, Marcus wrote of the lessons he’d learnt in life – a handbook on living, by a leader who was raised to Plato’s ideal as a philosopher/king. Before this, I had started reading a few books on Buddhism and liked a lot about how Buddha lived his life. I’m crediting Buddha’s teachings for rounding out my life education, and in some ways, I saw some interesting parallels to Marcus.
William Irvine’s “A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” was the perfect next step for me. Irvine was a dedicated Buddhist who discovered the Greek and Roman philosophers from the Stoic school, and was ultimately drawn to Stoicism as a way of living. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, along with philosophers such as Epictetus and Seneca. So I downloaded and started reading what’s become a compelling book for me.
If you haven’t heard much about the Stoics, then this blog is a good place to begin.
Given this crazy world we live in now, some of the Stoic ideals may become useful in coping with the rollercoaster we’re on.
Let’s start with the word Stoic. Just as Epicurus wasn’t judging MasterChef in ancient Greece and feasting all day (Epicureans somehow went from being moderate, happiness seeking followers of Epicurus to wine and cheese buffs), the word Stoic has changed its meaning along the way. Far from being joyless sufferers, bearing up in any circumstance, the early Stoics sought happiness and tranquillity in life, and had some particular techniques and ways of viewing their world that led them towards that end.
In a lot of ways, Stoics and Buddhists have much in common – east meets west you might say. In fact they share a number of beliefs, most significant being the realisation that happiness and joy came from within and from social engagements, not from one’s possession, wealth or place in society. They both believed in one’s thoughts being the determinant of one’s state of life, and the importance of having power and control over one’s thinking.
I thought I’d outline a single, and perhaps the most significant, technique that the Stoics believed in and used to create a meaningful, happy and tranquil life.
It’s called Negative Visualisation, and on first pass it might seem to be counter-intuitive to living a happy life.
Put simply, imagine the worst thing that can happen to you, and then expect it to. That’s right. Think about your life; the things you treasure, the people you love, the comforts you have, and then imagine, no, expect, that you will soon lose them. While it seems quite pessimistic or glum, its effect can be very opposite.
Instead of acting with an insatiable desire for more; a better job, a grander life, a more understanding partner or better kids, the Stoics would have us visualise losing it all and, by effect, to appreciate and treasure what you already have. So rather than taking what you’ve already got for granted, you seek to realise the value in it in the present, particularly by bearing in mind the prospect of losing it all.
Learning to love and appreciate what you already have is a sure-fire way to gain happiness.
Seneca and Epictetus both taught and wrote of the concept of negative visualisation. I remember vividly when I first read Marcus’ “Meditations”, where he quoted Epictetus as saying “when you kiss your child asleep tonite, reflect on the possibility they will die tomorrow”. I recall my emotional response to this the first time I read it; the person who Epictetus spoke it too was similarly saddened, yet according to Epictetus, “we are not to be shocked, for it’s no less natural than the ripening of corn”. If we took on board this idea, we’ll likely love and cherish our kids even more; imagine then, the joy and happiness of greeting them alive in the morning, and taking every advantage to enjoy their presence each day they live.
The Stoics suggest that this negative visualisation extend to your friends and relative lives, and even to your own mortality. That’s right, Seneca espoused that we should live in this very moment as if it were our last.
It’s important to point out that this means contemplating the worst that could happen, not worrying about it. The objective is happiness and tranquillity, which you won’t attain if you spend all your thoughts on the disasters than might befall you. It’s about leveraging the concept of negative visualisation to help appreciate your world and the things around you. Though at the same time, the Stoics warn not to over-much love the things we enjoy. “Be the user, not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune” advised Seneca.
Like Buddha, enjoyment but not attachment to the delights in our life is the key.
We have to contemplate the world, and our lives’, impermanence. When we do this, we might just convince ourselves to invest greater love and intensity in the simple things we do each day, that we so easily take for granted. Even Joni Mitchell knew a thing when she wrote: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”
So, amidst the turmoil of Covid, it might be beneficial for us to take some time and appreciate what we have right now and be grateful for the everyday things that most of you reading this will also have; our family, friends, health and the beauty of nature.