I’m always searching for better ways to live my life, or just to get through the average day. I’ve flirted with a number of philosophies, such as Presbyterianism, hedonism, alcoholism, Buddhism, marriage, Amway, Course in Miracles and weight-lifting. They all have their good and bad points.
One view of life that seems to make sense to me is stoicism. This school of thought was founded in Athens in the third century B.C. It later spread to Rome, and gradually came to be the favorite philosophy of educated Romans. Unfortunately, the emperor Justinian I put an end to stoicism and all other religions except Christianity in 529 A.D. This paved the way for the Spanish Inquisition, in which many non-Christians were burned at the stake. This persecution, in turn, led to John Lennon’s thoughtful ballad, “Imagine,” which pictured a world completely free of any and all religions. Fat chance for that.
Today I won’t burden you with the fine points of stoicism, because to understand them you’d have to become a full-fledged stoic, which would violate the due process sections of the Constitution. But a few principles of stoicism are worth noting. One of them is that we should strive for self-control and fortitude as a means of defeating destructive emotions such as envy, fear, anger and jealousy. You will not find stoics appearing on the Dr. Phil or Judge Judy TV shows, which specialize in presenting people who hate each other’s guts and blame God for whatever is wrong.
One of the most-remembered stoics was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He ruled from 161 to 180 A.D. Historians tell us he was one of the better emperors, in that he did not commit random acts of fratricide, incest, or the torture of wartime prisoners, all of which sports were common among the Roman hierarchy. However, he did persecute Christians. Nobody’s perfect.
Marcus Aurelius wrote hundreds of thoughts about how to live. Here’s one: “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul, for things themselves have no natural power.” Here’s another: “This is the chief thing: Be not perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the universal; and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere....”
In trying to list persons who I believe might be a stoic, I immediately think of Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots football team. Bill has become famous for his frequent response to sportswriters’ questions, especially inane ones such as, “Coach, what is your estimate of the Patriots’ chance for a Super Bowl bid?” Belichick patiently (and unemotionally) answers, “Well, it is what it is.” He then elaborates by pointing out the obvious, i.e., “Who knows? We’ll do our best, and accept the results, whatever they are.”
Translated, “It is what it is” could also mean, “All of life and the universe is out there, and nobody has much control over it. So let’s move ahead calmly and not get our shorts in a twist over any of it.” Does this mean stoics must be fatalistic non-responders to the problems of life? I don’t think so. Marcus Aurelius spent the final years of his life, as emperor, handling all sorts of problems brought to him by his subjects for solution. He also successfully turned back attacks by Germanic invaders. But he stayed calm while doing so.
I would guess that down through the ages stoics have tended to drive other people crazy, just by refusing to fly into a tizzy each time something goes wrong. Let’s say a stoic named Hailey is driving along Ulmerton Road during rush hour. Another motorist cuts in front of Hailey just as his wife Marge is putting on fresh lipstick. Hailey hits his brakes, and Marge smears lipstick all over her cheek and earlobe. She curses the other driver and expects her husband to join her in her road rage. But, as a card-carrying stoic, he declines to do so. He stays cool and grateful that he didn’t slam his Honda into the other guy’s car. His calmness turns his wife into a sputtering nut case. She accuses him of being a wimp and a wuss. Hailey replies, “I’m neither one. I’m a stoic.” His wife soon divorces Hailey on the grounds of emotional desertion.
Another manifestation of stoicism is to simply maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of pain or adversity. I think we are surrounded by thousands of stoics who don’t even realize they qualify as such. Many of them are known as grown-ups. Or tough cookies. Or just “cool.”
Bob Driver is a former columnist for the Clearwater Sun. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.>