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Column: Stoicism in the twenty-first century (Part three of three)

Part Three

I began an exploration of a Stoic prose-poem, The Desiderata, in a July edition of the column. Stoicism is interesting in its own right, but also because it has been enjoying a modern revival. In this section I also cite a short Stoic prayer.

This column concludes my study of Stoicism and the Desiderata.


Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

Not an easy piece of advice to practice. The phrase “wholesome discipline” begs a lengthy exposition. To be as kind to oneself as to others, as gentle, is good, and to avoid constant pushing of oneself to excel in a hyper-competitive world is wise. Again, only the individual can judge what to demand of oneself in a manner that feels right, appropriate to one’s character, circumstance, aspiration. Discipline is self-imposed, in its best form. Be your own disciplinarian. Know yourself, your goal, intention, values, and pursue actions that furthers your path to them.

Stoics are stereotypically “austere” and even “severe” by common standards, and it is the Stoic notion of the disciplined will and mastery over emotion that is the reason for this reputation.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

A beautiful sentence, and a welcome reminder of the natural world outside our human one. Nature is central to Stoic thought. The natural Sage is the happiest of beings.

One needs to hold hard to our “right” to live, to be, to become. We let children unfold, and we ought to be as children no matter our age, in this regard.

Most everyone has heard “be here now”... It advises mindfulness. You are here. Just be. Your right to be is unquestionable. 

Be gentle answering your inner critic, who demands that you “justify” why you exist. We all have a mean-spirited judgmental voice challenging us inside, and too often it is reinforced from outside, to “prove your worth.”  Silence it.

No tree, no star, is troubled by questioning its worth. Why then distress yourself?


And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Treat this as self-evident. You, and every other human being, lack any means to know the unfolding of the universe is proceeding as it “should.” You cannot judge. Take it as a truth needing no proof. Humans are not constituted to understand it.

If one thinks that materialist sciences (physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology etc.) are indeed capable of doing all the explaining humans require, one has fallen into the error of Scientism. Please, go and research Rupert Sheldrake's critique of this foolish intellectual delusion.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be

Ehrmann elects to let each individual conceive and define God, or not. Your truth and mine likely are not identical in the matter; it's not worth an argument.
 

and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life

Again, the Stoics contrast the world/ work/ activity and its noise outside, with the quiet inside a human being.

keep peace with your soul.

Peace is the evident theme of much of Stoic teachings. It's a prime ingredient of “happiness” and “virtue” and the purpose of following the philosophical life-path.

Two troubling words:

As for your soul, as for God: it is not for me to explain why they are important enough that Ehrmann could not leave them unspoken. I think the words are apt in their place. Living well is not solely about tangibles, materials, actions.

If the two words totally alienate you from what Ehrmann is saying, I understand. I have been in 12-step meetings for years, and I know these words do not resonate well for significant numbers of humans.

It is “unfortunate,” to use a feeble word, that The Desiderata might not be heard and can never be assimilated, by some individuals because Ehrmann employed these words – God, soul – even though the words exercise such obvious potential to close minds against his teaching. He was not a fool, and he puts the words in; I think his reasoning is valid and the words are apt to his intention. Readers should be unsurprised that I do not try to add anything beyond this.

As for peace, I will say a bit about that. Peace on the scale of all humanity “out there” is not yours to create, but you must work on your own piece of the cosmic tapestry... As Rabbi Tarfon said, “you cannot refuse the work” -- your part in human creativity. Peace for others is sometimes within your power to create. Peace for your own inner space surely is within your power to labour upon.

It is certain that, if you are not at peace inside yourself, you will not bring it to others. If my use of the phrase “inside yourself” irritates, you will have stopped reading this some time ago. For me the interior world of my consciousness is a  sanctuary in a material world that frequently shocks me.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Belief in this statement will conduce to a better life than disbelief will. The choice of either conviction appears to be free.I want to choose belief.
 

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Cheerfulness can be projected on your face and in your voice. That is all that is asked for here. Feelings can follow appearances, as neuroscience has shown.

And the same science of mind has lately turned to attempts to understand the ingredients of happiness and discovered it is possible to pursue happiness by imitating the ways of happy people. Helping others is one sure way to increase one’s happiness.

As for “cheerfulness,” this is a perspective:

https://aeon.co/essays/cheerfulness-cannot-be-compulsory-whatever-the-t-shirts-say?fbclid=IwAR0mozEKOiy__2R9hONqgP9rfj-Ft3wO52nAYu4dlErXkQ2Rvj5i7mK32DU

The Serenity Prayer

Here us one more quick prayer-poem to summarize Stoic thinking and doing:

{God,} grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Leave God out if you will, the kernel of wisdom here is lucid. One creates value in one’s life by making change to aid self and others, and contributing to the good of individuals and society at large. Political activism will demand you understand the limits of your efficacy. As the Tao teaches, do what is needed, withdraw, and have no attachment to whether your act accomplished its end, “successful” or not.

Knowing the change that is possible from the one that is not will immensely increase one’s chance of enjoying life and experiencing peace.

Conclusions

I have not tried to present an argument nor support an hypothesis in this edition. I have merely commented on a philosophy that has intermittently served me, aspiring that it might do as much for readers.

The great rival to Stoicism in Roman times was Epicureanism. It has been summed up in a memorable slogan: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”  In other words, a fairly hedonistic approach to a happy life. Here is an essay that will introduce readers to Epicureanism and its contrast with Stoic teaching:

https://aeon.co/ideas/why-epicurean-ideas-suit-the-challenges-of-modern-secular-life

Stoicism is more than what is found in Desiderata. A readable guide in memorable phrases is the book by Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.  Readers must wrestle with the meaning of “nature” used so often by ancient Stoics in ways a modern mind finds alien; for me, it is much like trying to grasp the meaning of “Tao” in the classic text by Laotzu. Words and concepts are slippery rather than solid as often as not.

Problematic Stoic concepts persist: reason, virtue, corruption, truth, right.

Last, I have observed a constant habit among philosophically-inclined people to distinguish between “the Sage” and other human beings; Stoics and Taoists often do. It might be an unavoidable result of thinking about large questions that the thinker finds a majority of humans not harmonious to their philosophical cast of mind.  This needn’t have a negative meaning, so long as compassion for others is the lodestar for one’s actions.  Not being a Sage does not sentence one to unhappiness.

I have led readers hopefully to water where drinking is an option not a command.

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