Tom Palven decided that he would read some classical philosophy. After a few hours, he threw his hands up and complained, "It is hard for me to express what horseshit I consider this to be." I agree that speculations on how we know, what is real, etc. are worthless. The only value they have is in pointing out the errors of other thinkers. But there is more to classical philosophy than ill-founded pronouncements on "the real" or "form" or pneuma; some of the classical philosophers expanded into areas that we would call psychology and religion. Even though I see no value in the philosophy that underlies their prescriptions, there is no reason to ignore their psychological or religious thinking. We have recently given psychology a pseudoscientific patina but have seen no measurable increase in human happiness. Perhaps the Stoics have something of value to tell us.
More than two centuries of religious freedom in the United States have produced interesting results. Large numbers of people have belief systems that were unknown at the beginning of the nation. This free market in thought has given us the same sort of choice that economic free markets produce. We can pick and choose our faiths as never before. Pop moralities and designer religions proliferate. Most people (and I include myself) cling to a kind of vague belief that there is a God but are suspicious about any hard and fast description of this deity or its demands. A certain percentage of the population holds very strong beliefs. Some believe in fundamental interpretations of the major religions. Some, like the members of Heaven's Gate, believe strongly in newly created faiths. Many have turned back to the past and believe in Wicca, Odinism, and other forms of paganism. One philosophical and religious system that has been totally ignored is Stoicism. What's so bad about the Stoics?
In order to answer that question, I will have dabble in a little of that philosophical horseshit that caused Tom Palven such pain. I'll try to make it quick and in the process I'll probably give you an inaccurate and incomplete picture. Of course, you can always do some of your own research. The Stoics believed that the whole universe was animated by a benevolent spirit. We might as well call this spirit God. They have a very simple answer to the question of why there is evil in the world: We aren't wise enough to understand the universe. Epictetus suggests a deeper answer, "What do you think Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out?" Epictetus tells us that Hercules would have wrapped himself up and dreamed his life away in ease; he then asks what would have been the purpose of Hercules.
We are not all Hercules. And so we ask the Stoics what our purpose is. They tell us that we have reason, which is more important than mere muscles. Our purpose is to live in conformity with reality and God. Reason tells us that we can not control the physical world. If we seek pleasure or riches or power, we may be thwarted. But our will and our actions are totally under our control. Reason then dictates that we should concentrate on perfecting our wills and our actions. The Stoics say that a will in accord with reality and God is necessary for happiness; they also claim that it is sufficient. The Stoic philosopher will necessarily be happy.
Marcus Aurelius gives us many maxims that illustrate these ideas. In regard to seeking achievements other than perfecting our own wills he says, "To pursue the unattainable is insanity, yet the thoughtless can never refrain from doing so." If the perfecting of our wills is all that we need for happiness, we should not give any weight to worldly misfortune. Marcus Aurelius instructs us, "So here is a rule to remember in the future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not 'This is a misfortune,' but 'To bear this worthily is good fortune.'"
The word stoic in modern English means an indifference to the ups and downs of fate. To take something philosophically indicates an attitude of detachment uncommon among the general population. The Stoics delighted in telling stories of men who gave no weight to earthly rewards or punsihments. Epictetus tells how Vespasian threatened Priscus with death for performing his senatorial duties. Priscus replied, "When then, did I tell you that I was immortal? You will do your part and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: your role is to banish me; my role is to depart without sorrow."
The egoist Max Stirner gives us the idea of a spook. A person's spook is the value or idea that he places above his own self-interest. He says that a person often prefers the interests of God, the state, mankind, morality, or some other external entity over his own good. On a psychological level, we would say that the Stoic makes a spook of his own character. In "Spooks, Spocks, and Hillary Clinton," I argue that the person always acts selfishly. He makes his spook his own psychic property and so acts for himself in a roundabout way. The Stoics train themselves to derive their happiness from what is in their absolute control: their free wills. This road to happiness is perhaps the most logical but it is easy to see why their philosophy has no adherents in modern times. Epictetus proclaims that "the thief of my free will—doesn't exist." Government, psychology, entertainment, and even some religions all agree on one point: "It's not my fault." Modern individuals are not equipped to hear the Stoics. They may strain to hear what dolphins are saying to each other; but they dismiss Stoicism as gibberish.
I'm not a scholar. I've read the works of only two Stoics: Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I don't regard their works as quaint artifacts of the past; I take what they say seriously. Americans live in the most cosmopolitan country and era of all time, but they are intensely parochial. It's natural that the majority of people simply accept the values and ideas of their time and place as self-evident. But most of our well-educated people see no value in the thoughts of anyone who doesn't accept the standard liberal line of the late 20th century. What makes this fact more ironic is that one of the great liberal values is "diversity." The modern liberal tolerates diversity only if he can rule over it. When a Moslem, black radical, or fundamentalist Christian aspires to making the rules, he instantly becomes a dangerous radical.
In the hands of modern Americans, biography has become a means of ignoring the intellectual achievements of its subjects. The underlying theme of many biographers is "This person thought as he did because of the circumstances of his life." We are invited to give no weight to any thought produced by a person who lived under different circumstances than we do unless his thoughts correspond to our own. Actually reading what a person said has become the province of specialists, who presumably won't be corrupted by some wayward alien thought.
Nevertheless, I will give short sketches of the lives of the Stoics I mentioned. Their lives were actually quite interesting. Epictetus (circa 60–138) was a Greek-speaking Roman slave who listened to Stoic lectures in his youth and was converted to that philosophy. His very name means "acquired." He was the subject of one of those tales of Stoic indifference to the material world in his role as slave. Origen says that Epictetus's master tortured him by having his leg twisted. Epictetus smiled calmly and warned, "You will break it." When the leg was finally broken, he merely said, "I told you so." He obtained his freedom at about the age of 30 and started lecturing on Stoicism. Soon thereafter, he was expelled from Rome along with other philosophers who were suspected of favoring a republic over the imperial form of government. He moved to Greece, where he continued lecturing. He claimed to own nothing but earth, sky, and a cloak. Epictetus never wrote down his works but his lectures were carefully copied by Flavius Arrian, who later held an important post under Hadrian. Of Epictetus's eight books only four remain, but that is probably not a huge loss because he tends to be rather repetitious. He was greatly revered. Lucian claims that after Epictetus's death, an admirer paid 3,000 drachmas for an earthenware lamp that he had used.
Marcus Aurelius (121–180) was born into a rich and noble family. At 17, he was adopted by his uncle, Aurelius Antonius, the emperor. By the time he was 40, Marcus was very well prepared to take over the government. He had been a close companion and colleague of Emperor Antonius for 23 years. Nevertheless, he chose to make Lucius Verus his coemperor, a first for a Roman emperor. Lucius had also been adopted by the emperor. Marcus probably decided to share the throne with him because he lacked the military training that Lucius possessed. Lucius died after 9 years of joint rule, leaving the 49-year-old Marcus Aurelius sole emperor. Marcus spent most of the rest of his life with the Roman army on the borders of the empire fighting barbarian invaders. He died of an infectious disease in the field at the age of 59, leaving his son, Commodus, as the new emperor of Rome.
Marcus Aurelius wrote his famous work The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in Roman army camps over his many years of fighting the barbarians. He never intended that anyone should read it and would have been very surprised that it was published. It was really a diary and a better translation is "Notes to Himself." The first time I read it, I erroneously believed that it was a philosophical work. It isn't. Marcus Aurelius was not a philosopher in the Stoic sense; he was a student. His notes are an effort to convince himself of the correctness of a philosophy that he had a great deal of difficulty in practicing.
Epictetus was a professional philosopher. He derived his identity and sense of worth from his practice of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius had a much more difficult task. He tried to live by Stoic beliefs while holding the office of emperor. In one passage he turned around the idea that poor people can be virtuous by commenting that "even in a palace a right life is possible." This line inspired the poet Matthew Arnold to write in a sonnet, "'Even in a palace life may be lived well'; So spake the imperial sage, purest of men, Marcus Aurelius."
Remembering the hardships of Roman military life adds poignancy to Marcus's remark "At day's first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought, 'I am rising for the work of man.'" It is apparent from his writing that the emperor had trouble restraining several of his natural desires and fears. He constantly belittled the fear of death, the hatred of flatterers and backstabbers, and the desire for glory in the present and fame in the future. Obviously these matters troubled Marcus and distracted his mind from Stoical serenity. Ironically, his personal writings attacking his desire for a name in posterity are the only reason that most people remember him at all.
My next door neighbor, Jon Reising, has Parkinson disease. He told me that he once had to pull his car over because driving just became too much for him. This seemed even stranger to me because Jon drives 18 wheelers for a living. Apparently, Parkinson's destroys brain cells and these cells are needed in driving, not to take information in but to filter extraneous information out. It's interesting (if not relevant to this essay) that Jon, and other Parkinson's sufferers such as Janet Reno and Michael J. Fox, have maintained their mental acuity even with this destruction of brain cells. The point, though, is that ignoring information is a positive process of our brains.
I believe that our minds go through a similar process in establishing what is psychologically and spiritually important. I remember looking at a Japanese magazine once. I thumbed through the pages (in the wrong direction) and saw pictures of famous people. Maybe it was a fan magazine. It occurred to me that I had never heard of these eminent people before and would probably never see them again. People have formed themselves into groups and ignore thousands of other groups and their values. Most NFL football players have never even heard of the game of go; and yet go is an extremely important game in Japan. Perhaps a professional go player is tempted to commit hari kari if he falls from 5th in Japan to 8th. The same man could not distinguish between the Super Bowl winning team and the Dartmouth college team. We all have this tunnel vision. We need it in order to continue functioning in our own very specialized environments. But it is obvious that the values we hold dear are completely unimportant to 99% of the people in the world. We are obviously living in worlds that are invisible to the rest of humanity.
Many people attack the values of other groups as irrelevant or unrealistic; perhaps they belittle others in order to assure themselves that they are living in the "right" invisible world. Some folks tell us to live in the "real world." What is this real world? Apparently, the more violent and corrupt a world is the more "real." Some petty thief tells the honest man that he ought to live in the real world. A gangster laughs at the petty thief's naiveté. Worlds become more and more real until we reach the world of government, the biggest gang of all. Since everything government does depends on extorted tax money, it must be the real "real" world. People with a moral systems or religious beliefs are said to live in a "dream world" and be out of touch with reality.
We probably all live in our own "dream" worlds. It seems to me that a person would be crazy to believe things that make him unhappy. Only if the full force of physical reality convinces him that his ideas are wrong will he change his values and beliefs. We modern people have been exposed to so many religions and ethical systems that we can pick and choose those ideas that are most pleasing to us. Of course, we call this the search for "truth." This truth, though, is not thrust upon us by the material universe. I know this to be so because people have different beliefs. If the material world offered us information about psychology, religion or ethics, we would all believe the same things. The Moslem considers the belief in Jesus to be sacrilegious; the Christian regards the Moslem to be a misled pagan, perhaps doomed to hell. The union member considers his job to be his property and sees the scab as a sort of a thief; others may consider his efforts to keep out another employee as criminal.
The Stoics fancied themselves to be scientific. They were also materialists who believed that only material things existed. They believed in a single God but thought this God was a material being that existed in all the universe's matter. The "real" world to the Stoics was whatever their senses presented to them. They reasoned that they had power over their own wills and actions but not over the material world. They then went on to assert that a philosopher should accept everything as real—and good since it was from God. No matter how terrible things seemed, God was behind them. Epictetus writes, "We ought to go to be instructed, not that we may change the constitution of things—for we have not the power to do it, nor is it better that we should have the power—but in order that, as things around us are what they are and by nature exist, we maintain our minds in harmony with things which happen."
Epictetus speaks of the punishment for defying Stoic acceptance of reality (and the will of God). "What, then, is the punishment for those who do not accept? It is to be what they are." He asks if a such a man should be cast into prison and answers, "What prison? Where he is already, for he is there [meaning in reality] against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly." I remember when Hamlet said that Denmark was a prison if a goodly one and went on to say that he could be confined in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space—were it not for his bad dreams. Epictetus refers to his own lameness (reminding us that the Roman world was probably considerably more "real" than ours), "'Must my leg then be lamed?' Wretch, do you then on account of one poor leg find fault with the world?... Will you be vexed and discontented with the things established by Zeus and the Fates?"
The Stoics have a very different attitude toward reality from the Christians'. The Christian says, "Thy will be done," and acts the part of the Stoic. But the quote is out of context, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven." The Christian does not believe that the material world reflects the will of God. We hear in Ephesians 6:12, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." The material world has been given over to the powers of evil. Jesus's message, repeated endlessly, was that the kingdom of God was at hand. In other words, God's rule would soon come. The Stoics believed that they were living in the kingdom of God already, but only the Stoic philosopher could see it. The Stoics' invisible world, then, was the material world perceived correctly.
Epictetus does not acknowledge evil in the world at all. "Therefore, when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. 'For what purpose?' you may say. Why, that you may become an olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat." Evils in the world, however severe, are simply the tools that God uses to perfect you. Some of this thinking has spilled over into Christianity but it is not intrinsic to it. The Christian sees hunger, sickness, and poverty as evils and prays, "Thy kingdom come." Epictetus speaks of a student who has learned logical syllogisms. When he is given an easy syllogism to analyze, he complains that it is too simple and asks for something more complicated so that he can demonstrate his learning. The person who would be a true philosopher welcomes what we call evils in order to perfect his understanding of the world.
Stoic theory is easy enough to express; perhaps it is not so easy to practice. When we turn to Marcus Aurelius, we read the words of a real person struggling with this philosophy. After giving thanks to the various people who influenced his life, Marcus Aurelius says, "Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders' ignorance of what is good and evil." The Christian says, "This old world is not my home"; he sings, "I am a poor wayfaring stranger." He doesn't have to squint and strain to see God's purposes in the evils of the world. He waits for the invisible world to come upon him and condemns the conditions around him. Marcus Aurelius is driven to find God's will in material reality, an intellectual exercise made all the more difficult by the fact that he himself, as emperor of Rome, was the most important creator of that material reality.
One of the most important tenets of Stoicism is that there is no evil in the world. In fact, the Stoics believed that all experiences were positive and beneficial. This belief applied even to the world of people. Of course, the Stoics were not blind to the conduct of their contemporaries, and the people of ancient Rome were no more virtuous than 20th century people. The Stoics equated their evil with ignorance.
Epictetus asks, "Ought not then this adulterer and this robber be destroyed?" He answers no and explains that the man is simply blind, not in the sense of sight but in the more important matter of judgment. He sarcastically asks, "'Ought we not destroy this blind and deaf man?' But if the greatest harm is in the privation of the greatest things, and the greatest thing in every man is the will or choice such as it ought to be,...why are you also angry with him?...Pity him rather: Drop this readiness to be offended and to hate."
This attitude toward evil is a key to understanding the failure of the Stoics to capture the hearts of the people. There are two dynamic religions in the world today: Christianity and Islam. Believed passionately and hated just as passionately, these religions wax and wane, conquer and retreat, and intrude themselves into the calculations of everyone who would rule the world of mankind. Christianity has overwhelmed Europe and the Americas. Islam dominates the Middle East and Northern Africa; it keeps pushing into Central and Southern Asia. These religions are at war in sub-Saharan Africa and the spoil they seek is the souls of the inhabitants.
Stoicism is also a monotheistic religion that preaches the brotherhood of men. Christianity and Islam differ from Stoicism is forcefully asserting the existence of evil. They believe that evil influences the activity of people on Earth. In fact, the existence of a great evil power is crucial to understanding how reality works. A fundamental belief of Christianity is that judgment is coming, the judgment of God against an evil world.
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God he usually added that there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth when it came. He told his followers that "whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city." Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host, claims that there is a fundmental difference between the political right and left: The conservatives regard their opponents as wrong, perhaps even foolish; the liberals believe their opponents to be evil.
This notion of evil has the power of clarifying the world for us, not just our abstract idea of reality but also our own personal setbacks. More importantly, our belief in evil powers allows us to indulge our desire for revenge and justifies our violent impulses. The makers of modern action movies know the formula. For 80 minutes they show us a vision of evil, a Nazi, a drug kingpin, a rightwing extremist, a man without conscience or pity. They then spend 20 minutes destroying this demon in the most violent and painful way possible. We, the audience, are invited to feel like the righteous in Revelations who cry "with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"
One of my favorite passages from the Bible is a vision that John saw. It's bloody and eerie and plays to all my negative emotions: "And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great." When Peter asked Jesus if he had to forgive his enemy seven times Jesus replied, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." Behind this Christian idea of forgiveness is the thirst for vengeance. The Christian can forgive because he knows that the wicked will ultimately pay. He forgives and smirks.
You are invited to keep joining bigger and more powerful gangs. Finally the government tells you it will take care of you and avenge the wrongs done to you. And yet you still sit in the dust and cry, "Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?" Finally, you turn to the biggest and most powerful gang of all. The Creator of the universe, himself, will be the hero in your own personal action movie. It starts to get a little silly. One day Susan had a revelation. She told me that no matter how much evil a person had done on Earth, eternal punishment would not be just. Let's say your 10-year-old carelessly broke a glass. Would it be fair to send him to the electric chair? Of course not. The idea of eternal punishment is even more absurd. Take all the evil that has been done on earth and balance it against eternity. All that evil weighs less than a flea against an elephant. And yet, many Christians accept hell as just. Why? Because their hearts are bloodthirsty and violent.
What can the Stoics offer that is as gratifying as the idea of evil? Not much. Marcus Aurelius, speaking of the evildoer, consoles himself, "none of these things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading." He believes that only he can degrade himself and only by having an incorrect view of reality. "Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man's two hands....To obstruct each other is against Nature's law—and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction?"
Christians and the Moslems see themselves on the side of good against evil. The Stoic is not permitted such an exalted view of himself. In a roundabout way, though, he has his own pride. By cultivating his will, he identifies with God while the ignorant man identifies himself with animals. The Stoic philosopher is more a child of God than the ignorant people around him. Such a view is emotionally satisfying. When we remember how Stoicism has disappeared from the Earth, though, we have to conclude that it isn't satisfying enough. Stoicism has failed to win the hearts of men; but we might remember the words of Jeremiah. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and is desperately wicked: Who can know it?"
Discussing evil before discussing God is the natural sequence, at least psychologically. People are more inclined to think of the evil in their lives than to think of God. I assume that some people wake up in the morning and ask, "What can I do to please God today?" The ones I know are more likely to wake up and review the difficulties that they must face during the day. Consider a rich man, in good health, with a loving family. See how contentedly he strolls down the street. Now put a pebble in his shoe—a pebble smaller than an orange seed. His mind will forget all his miraculous good fortune and fix itself entirely on the inconsequential irritation of his foot. I know this is true from personal experience.
Most people believe in some sort of god. Even atheists often believe in a great ruling principle of reality. Some few (like Max Stirner) make themselves their own god. Only the rarest person regards the world and himself as meaningless, chaotic, and empty. Most people's belief in God is vague and intermittent. The most popular god is what I call the lemon Jell-O god. People believe that God is a sort of force that exists everywhere but has no claim or power over the believer's activities. In other words, God is like omnipresent lemon Jell-O, only thinner.
Those who have a concrete idea of God and act accordingly are in the minority. I believe in God but my own ideas aren't much more definite than those of the Church of Lemon Jell-O. Nevertheless, I believe that the creator of the universe must be much more real and distinct than the creation itself. The Christians say that God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Isn't that silly? But then I remember watching Night of the Iguana. The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (played by Richard Burton) is at the end of his rope. He pontificates, "We exist on two levels . . .the real level and the fantastic level." Hannah Jelkes, the New England spinster, listens sympathetically. Between the rhetorical pronouncement and the pompous answer, she inserts the subversive question "Only two?" When the Christian tells us that God exists in three persons, we modern people think, "Isn't that polytheistic nonsense?" Perhaps we should think, "Only three?"
The Stoics and the Christians share a belief in one universal God who is the father of all humans. Both religions hold that people should have the same relationships with each other as family members. The Christians claim these ideas as distinctly Judeo-Christian but this claim may not be accurate. The word Zeus comes from the Greek word theos, god. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter, that is, Zeus-pater or God-father.
We are all aware that the Christians preach, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you." The Stoics have a parallel understanding of what the fatherhood of God means to humanity. Marcus Aurelius's pronouncement is quite pithy: "Men exist for each other. Then either improve them or put up with them." Epictetus gives the example of a man who has an incompetent slave, who asks in angry frustration, "How shall a man endure such persons as this slave?" Epictetus then chides, "Slave yourself, will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus for his progenitor and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above?" Perhaps the master complains, "But I have purchased them, and they have not purchased me." Epictetus answers, "Do you not see what direction you are looking, that is toward the earth, toward the pit, that is toward these wretched laws of dead men? But toward the laws of the gods you are not looking."
I tend to agree with the Stoics and the Christians on these points. If there is a single creator God, He would probably be offended to have his creatures mistreated. Of course, neither the Christians nor the Stoics, nor even I, can leave matters so clear and simple. My sister-in-law Sally tells me that she prefers Thanksgiving to Christmas because everyone has a "theory" about Christmas; she could have said that everyone has his own set of Christmas "guidelines." We all have a theory about God that fills in the blanks left by His silence. In "The Babykillers," I attacked the idea of morality. If God opposes his will to my will, then he is my enemy. He may be stronger and smarter and older than I am, but we are equal in wanting our own way. The only way I could extricate myself from this problem was to imagine that God's will and my will were never in disagreement. This means that I must want what God wants. It also means that God must want what I want.
Christians have a theory about God. They believe that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the savior of mankind. This theory brings up the question of what we need to be saved from. Once more, the Christian cites the existence of evil. Each person is inherently evil from his birth; this is the doctrine of original sin. We might rightly complain that God could have created us good in the first place; but maybe we are being too logical. Religion deals with the emotions and the emotions rule the mind. It is also true that all religions and philosophies begin with the idea that there is something wrong with you. If I told you that you are perfect as you are and that you were in complete accord with the universe, you wouldn't need me anymore. (Perhaps you are perfect. I don't know.) The Christian says that you are inherently evil and that you must be destroyed. You can achieve this destruction painlessly by identifying with the crucifixion of Jesus. Christians are divided on how you can enter this mystical union but they agree on the result. Paul tells us, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
The Stoics have a different view of God. They believe that there is no evil in world, only ignorance. But what do you need to know? You must learn that nothing has any real value but your will and your character. Everything else is "indifferent." You may prefer wealth to poverty or health to sickness, but wealth and health do nothing to make you truly happy. The Stoics reach this conclusion through their own logic. Marcus Aurelius tells us that "the whole divine economy is pervaded by Providence." God is arranging the world as it should be. Epictetus explains that "the only thing which the gods have placed in our power (is) the right use of appearances; but all other things they have not placed in our power." He explains that God has given each person "a small portion of (the gods), the power of pursuing an object or avoiding it, and the faculty of desire and aversion." If you seek gold or friends or comfort, you may be thwarted, but you will never be frustrated if you desire that God's will be done because God's will is always being done. A man complained to Epictetus that he could not "comprehend all things at once." Epictetus replied in a mystical mode that we have that within us that understands the truth and that we ought to value this faculty above everything.
The Stoics believed that unhappiness is the result of trying to control what can't be controlled: the external world. Happiness is produced by controlling what can be controlled, our will and our actions. Imagine a clear bottle full of bright red poison. Call it "Improper Desire." A 5-year-old cries and whines to drink it. You explain to him that it is poison and will sicken and maybe kill him. He no longer wants it. Marcus Aurelius called this "improving men." Now suppose that a 2-year-old throws a tantrum so that he can drink the poison. No amount of reason can dissuade him and so you simply keep the bottle away from him and wait. Marcus Aurelius called this "putting up with men."
A person's theory about God may seem to be a technical matter that is not important in real life, but his theory determines his actions. The Christian and the Stoic each want to be good to other people. This good is not the commonsense idea of good. If a person wants to do me some good, I would tell him to give me some money. The Christian tells me that my salvation is far more important. "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" His theory about God encourages him to lead as many people to Jesus as possible. He has sympathy for the poor and the sick, but he reserves his greatest effort for saving souls. Material well-being might even hinder a person from finding Jesus. A born-again friend of my wife and mine sent us this Christmas greeting "May your heart never know peace until you accept Jesus as your personal savior." Some Christians have taken doing good to the extreme. They have gained political power, converted populations by the sword, and even tortured bodies to save souls.
Since the Stoics believed that the world had no evil in it, they felt no need to change anything but people's minds. A certain man wanted to obtain a priesthood so that his name would be remembered and he could wear a crown of gold. "Write your name on a stone and it will remain," Epictetus advised. "Wear a crown of roses, for it will be more elegant in appearance." Nevertheless, the world would be a better a place if people understood correctly. Paris judged wrongly when he carried off Helen of Troy and Helen judged wrongly when she followed him. Finally, Epictetus asked what would have happened if Meneleus had seen the good fortune in losing such a wife and answered that we would have lost The Iliad and The Odyssey. A person asked, "On so small a matter then did such great things depend?" Epictetus questions him, "But what do you mean such great things? Wars and civil commotions and the destruction of many men and cities?" He compares these tragedies to breaking up of storks' nest. The stork loses his home; the Trojans lose their city. The Trojans, though, were human beings and the only harm a human being can suffer is the result of his ignorance of the nature of reality.
The Stoics have been charged with having no sympathy; but they believed that happiness and unhappiness are independent of the material world. Marcus Aurelius, chiding himself, says, "Has something befallen you? Good. It was your portion of the universal lot, assigned to you when time began; a strand woven into your particular web....Then snatch your profit from the passing hour, by obedience to reason and just dealing." The good the Stoics want to do me is to make me invincible. Epictetus quoted Socrates with approval, "Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they can not hurt me." They educate endlessly and maybe rightly. Christians keep exhorting me to find Jesus. Personally, I wish they'd just give me a few denarii. Money is a good that even I can understand.
The Stoic feet that the human body and its demands are on a lower level than the mind. Epictetus constantly compares the mind to God and the body to animals. I don't fully understand what he means by various words like body, soul, mind, and spirit. Perhaps if I read his work in Latin the matter would be clearer to me; perhaps his ideas would be as vague as they are in English. My ideas on the subject are not very precise. I believe that a human has a nonphysical component. I argued this point from a subjective point of view in "The First Paradox."
Christian thinkers tend to divide a person into mind, body, and soul. Freud created the categories of id, superego, and ego. These divisions are neat and precise but I can't accept them as real. Many modern thinkers are materialists and they have a much simpler idea. They believe that nothing exists but matter; therefore the mind is the brain. There's an obvious problem with this theory. If it's true, everything we think and say is nothing more than the movement of atoms and molecules. The person who says we are nothing but matter says so because of certain movements of material in his body. If we accept or deny what he says, we do so because of the movement of material in our bodies. Thoughts and ideas are no different from rocks or sticks to him, and rocks or sticks cannot be true or false. They just are. Materialists like to compare the human mind to a computer. They don't understand what a mind is. They don't understand electricity. They don't understand computers; and so they wrap their ignorance into one big ball and call it mind.
Even if the materialists are correct, they lead us into a dead end. What are we to do with this truth of theirs? They tell us that the study of mankind can be a science, like entomology. This claim makes no more sense to me than a psychic's claims. I will guarantee you that no psychic can tell whether I am thinking of a spade, heart, diamond, or club. The same is true for psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. Perhaps materialists can tell what human beings in groups will do. Even this claim is silly. If they could predict group behavior, they would pick stocks in the stock market and become rich.
If the mind is physical, the materialist's mind is also physical and merely reacts to physical forces. The quarrel I have with materialists is that they act as though their minds could reason and decide when they deny these abilities to everyone else. They keep anthropomorphizing themselves. Archimedes invented a compound pulley and declared, "Give me a place to stand on and I will move the world." The mistake of the materialist is that he puts himself outside the material world to make his statements. He assumes that he is standing above the world of matter even though he denies that such a place exists.
In my own subjective philosophy, I assume that truth is impossible for me to know; but I can discover what is useful to me. Utility, for me, is analogous to truth. Materialism is not useful to me because it leads me to a dead end. Unfortunately, I don't know what mind is, or will, or soul. Memories may be physical and thoughts may not be. I simply don't know. I act as though some part of me exists as a non-material being controlling a material body and I act as though I make decisions.
Like the Platonists, the Stoics emphasized the nonmaterial parts of a human being at the expense of the physical parts. Epictetus says, "The good of man is in the will, and the evil too, and everything else does not concern us." Marcus Aurelius describes himself as "a little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all." Historically, the Stoics believed themselves to be materialists and reasoned that God and will and reason were material. They obviously did not appreciate the limitations of material objects and treated minds as though they had the supernatural power to make decisions. From our point of view, they did believe in nonmaterial objects or at least material objects that had non-material characteristics.
The Stoics constantly tell us that we have no power over the physical world and that we will be unhappy if we try to control it. In fact, we can often control or at least influence the events in our lives. If I want a hamburger for lunch I can usually get one. I rarely have to eat a fish. It's also true that we cannot completely control our own emotions or even our thoughts. The Stoics tell us that what goes on in the physical world will not affect our happiness at all, and yet material reality can certainly contribute to happiness or misery.
Even though Epictetus instructs us how to rise above material concerns and Marcus Aurelius is always trying to convince himself to think correctly, they tacitly admit that the physical world can be important. Epictetus longs for pupils who understand Stoicism well enough to say, "We can no longer endure being bound to this poor body, and feeding it and giving it drink, and rest, and cleaning it, and for the sake of the body complying with the wishes of these and of those. Are not these things indifferent and nothing to us, and is not death no evil. . . .Allow us to be released from these bonds (the body). . .Permit us to show them that they have no power over any man." Even though Epictetus found suicide acceptable and correct at times, he would say to such pupils, "Friends, wait for God. . .but for the present endure to dwell in this place where He has put you." He goes on to say that the evils of the physical world can be borne by the strong. Still, a Stoic may commit suicide "when He shall give the signal." Apparently, there is a limit to what a Stoic is expected to bear.
You would think that Stoicism appealed to the downtrodden, to slaves and the impoverished. The opposite is true. Epictetus himself was a former slave, but he was the exception. Stoicism appealed to the rich, the noble, and the educated. Christianity, which promised a glorious future, was the religion of the oppressed. Here's how I understand this paradox. Those who have experienced material well-being are the most likely to preach against it. After all, physical comfort and riches did not give them perfect happiness, therefore it must be of no worth. This seems to be an overreaction to me.
Stoics and Platonists drew a clear line between the mind and body. Suppose, as most modern people think, that this line is much fuzzier. Why did they Stoics keep insisting that there was a "great gulf fixed" between body and mind? I believe that their world view was influenced by their psychological desires. They speak as though their psychological prescriptions were derived from obvious truth; but it's more likely that their obvious truth had its origins in their psychological inclinations. The rich, the comfortable, and the powerful are acutely aware that material riches do not lead to complete happiness. The Stoics held out a hope to them: power over one's emotions. This would be the most fantastic power of all. Imagine that you could be happy simply by willing it. We live in a world of fantastic material riches, but we dare not imagine that we could have the power to control our own thoughts and emotions. Who has attempted this feat? Those who turn to alcohol and drugs. They try to maintain a constant sense of happiness. If any of them has succeeded, I haven't heard about him.
Epictetus realized what a daunting task exerting complete self control would be. He and Marcus Aurelius constantly compared the aspiring Stoic to an athlete in training or a soldier in battle. They knew that the task was not easy. Their philosophy told them that they could not control the physical world. They admited that they could not completely control their own emotions but they held out the hope that they could master their own wills and perhaps influence their desires. Suppose that you could actually decide what you wanted, what your desires would be. You know that you can't always have what you want except in one case. Let's say you wanted whatever was about to happened, that you wanted what would be. Then every moment would be like Christmas Eve.
The Stoics' dream is to enjoy what is and to desire what will be. Epictetus speaks of this state of mind as freedom; "For he is free to whom everything happens according to his will." The Stoic is always striving to make his will agree with reality. He speaks of God, the body, the mind, the pneuma, etc., but I see such talk as the tools he uses to achieve his ultimate aim: the control of his desires.
A baby has simple desires and a simple way to handle them. It wants to be warm, dry, well-fed, and loved. If it doesn't get what it wants, it cries. As we grow older, our desires and the means we use to realize them become more complex. We often see this complexity as a problem and long for simpler times. Our increased intelligence, however, could be a new source of happiness. Imagine a man taking pleasure in eating a steak. The pleasure is not confined to the literal tasting and chewing of the meat. The man enjoys the sight of the steak as he cuts it. He feels a certain happiness in cooking it and even in buying it. If he had a completely positive attitude, he would take pleasure in waking up on a cold, dreary day in order to spend his time at a boring job to earn the money to buy the steak.
The human mind should always be filled with happiness. Not only do we usually have the power to achieve simple desires, but we can make our own long range plans. All our actions, however unpleasant to perform at the time, can be seen as steps in realizing our future desires. If our minds were positive, we would stroll from happiness to happiness while a thousand small pleasures delight us on the way. I have not observed that this is the common state of mankind. Robert Burns describes the negative mind in "To a Mousie." After accidentally destroying a mouse's nest, Burns philosophizes on the tragedy for a while and then concludes,
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess and fear.
The Stoics are more interested in overcoming this negativity than in achieving a state of positive joy. Their aim is to achieve a state we might call contentment, freedom, or serenity. Perhaps they thought that a person could have no more. Epictetus encourages us "to study how a man can rid his life of lamentation and groaning, and saying, 'Woe to me,' and 'wretched that I am,' and to rid it also of misfortune and disappointment, and to learn what death is, and exile, and prison, and poison." He seems to have a rather gloomy view of existence. The Christian is not satisfied with merely enduring the challenges of life. Jesus proclaims, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." He claimed that his mission was to "to preach the gospel to the poor . . . to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised."
The Stoics tell us that we can achieve their limited aims only by a constant application of reason. Epictetus asserts that a man's purpose is "contemplation and understanding, and in a way of life conformable to nature." Of course, he understands nature to be divine nature, not the nature of plants and beasts. He tells us to "take care then not to die without having been spectators of these things." In a sense, we are born to be pilgrims or tourists, and he makes the analogy clearer. "You take a journey to Olympia to see the work of Phidia, and all you think it a misfortune to die without having seen such things." Even the tourist must endure unpleasant things. "Are you not scorched? Are you not pressed by a crowd? Are you not without comfortable means of bathing? Are you not wet when it rains? Have you not abundance of noise, clamor, and other disagreeable things?" We put up with these inconveniences merely to view the works of man, and so we ought to regard ourselves as tourists visiting God's work and count sickness, pain, and poverty as the necessary price.
Marcus Aurelius's work is one long pep talk, but we get the feeling that it is not always successful in convincing him that his Stoicism is correct. He has to encourage himself not to fall back into what we would call a natural way of thinking. "It will tend to avert complacency if you remember that any claim to have lived as a philosopher all your life, or even since reaching manhood, is now out of the question; indeed, it is evident . . . that even today philosophy is still far beyond you." He recalls that casuistry of logic, wealth, celebrity, and worldly pleasures have not led him to a good life. He tells himself that the only way he can this goal is "by adopting strict principles for the regulation of impulse and action."
It seems fairly obvious to me that a person can not change his entire way of looking at the world without intellectual effort and practice. The Christians, however, tell us that if we merely accept Jesus into our hearts, we will become new creatures with a new outlook. Born-again preachers, in particular, like to point out the conversions of drug addicts, prostitutes, and violent criminals as evidence of Jesus's miraculous power to change people's lives. Of course, these are the very people who are searching for any way out of the lives they have made for themselves. Christians have a much harder time converting virtuous people who have given some thought to religious questions.
The Stoics promise us no more than serenity with constant effort as the cost. Perhaps they are correct in offering so little; perhaps we can achieve no more. But we want more. Stoicism has disappeared from the planet while religions that promise us eternal bliss have flourished. Suppose that Stoicism will give us as much as we can possibly attain. Epictetus suggests why people do not embrace this philosophy even if it is correct. "In theory it is easy to convince an ignorant person; but in the affairs of real life, no one offers himself to be convinced, and we hate the man who has convinced us."
Suppose that you were the only person in the universe. You could exist in the most perfect paradise without reflecting on your good fortune. You could suffer hunger, thirst, and pain and not complain about the "unfairness" of existence. Notions of good and evil, just and unjust, cannot exist unless there are other people and other lives. When we judge these matters, we usually look no further than our neighbors. Americans call people poor whose standard of living would be considered quite high in China. They take for granted luxuries that were unimaginable 200 years ago. A time may come when our descendants will consider our lives horribly brutal and short, but we do not complain so long as we live about as well as those we see frequently or know about.
It would be simple to understand the Stoics' view of reality if we didn't have to deal with other people. But people can steal from us, make demands on us, depend on us, and interact with us in thousands of ways. The question of our relations with other people is the most complicated one in any religion or philosophy. Epictetus explains how a Stoic can maintain his serenity in the face of obviously predatory people. He cites the case of a thief who steals your clothes. "Do not admire your clothes and then you will not be angry with the thief. Do not admire the beauty of your wife, and you will not be angry with the adulterer." He reasons that the thief "does not know wherein man's good consists, but he thinks that it consists in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think." The Stoic knows that a man's good is in his will and character and not in anything external to him.
His logic is an example of a greater truth: Inequality leads to harmony; equality leads to conflict. We are constantly told that the opposite is true, but we should consider the relations between people. Trade and commerce depend on the fact that individuals place a different value on money. If the grocer didn't value the bag of flour less than the customer, he wouldn't sell it. Suppose the bag were worth a dollar to the grocer and a dollar to the customer; then the grocer would have no incentive to sell it. But the grocer values the bag at less than a dollar and so both the grocer and the customer can increase their wealth by the trade of one dollar for one bag of flour. Or suppose a rich man wants to hire a person for a job and two qualified applicants apply. The applicants are not in conflict with the rich man but with each other. Or suppose a man is in love with a beautiful woman. He is in harmony with other women and with homosexuals because they do not value the woman the way he does. Their feelings toward her are completely different from his. He feels the most hatred and ill-will toward another man who also loves the woman. Conflict is in direct proportion to equality. Of course, politics turns everything on its head. Groups of similar people with similar values combine to exert pressure to achieve political ends. But even in this case, the group is simply trying to obtain something from the government at the expense of other groups who want the same thing.
Since the Stoics put no value on anything external and called it indifferent, they could believe anything about human relations that was consistent with the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, however, are essentially conservative. Epictetus goes so far as to chide men for shaving their beards, expaining that God gave men beards for a purpose. Here's his general prescription for interpersonal relations: "Next to this, if you are a senator of any state, remember that you are a senator: if a youth, that you are a youth: if an old man, that you are an old man; for each of such names, if it comes to be examined, marks out the proper duties." Epictetus seems to be saying that we should look to those "wretched laws of dead men" for guidance in our conduct toward each other.
A magistrate visited Epictetus and complained that his family was making him unhappy. He cared so much about his little daughter that when "she was sick and supposed to be in danger, I could not endure to stay with her, but I left home until a person sent me the news that she had recovered." In the course of the conversation, Epictetus asks, "Would you wish to be so loved by your own that through their excessive affection you would always be left alone in sickness?" This sarcastic question makes sense only if the speakers agree with the dictum: "Don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you." Epictetus's must have believed that the roles of father, senator, old man, young man, etc. in Roman society were derived from this general rule. He never questions whether the very structure of his society might violate the rule and the concepts of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Twentieth century Americans would come to very different conclusions than Epictetus.
"For each of such names, if it comes to be examined, marks out the proper duties." Does Epictetus mean to include the names of woman, slave, and barbarian? St. Paul makes certain reactionary pronouncements in his letters. He suggests that slaves ought to remain slaves and that "it is a shame for women to speak in the church." But we must remember that he thought the present world was evil (and about to end) and that he was writing to specific churches about specific problems. The Stoics claimed that they were in possession of universal truth. Epictetus often remarks about different nationalities and belief systems: "As to Jews and Syrians and Egyptians and Romans, is it possible that the opinions of all of them in respect to food are right?" He answers no and searches for universal answers. We expect a person with such a cosmopolitan outlook to examine the axioms that uphold his society; but he seems content to accept the Roman way as correct.
The writings of Marcus Aurelius make it clear that he believes that women are incapable of Stoicism. He does not say so explicitly, but his use of language makes his attitude clear. "Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with a correct and natural dignity." He condemns sins of desire as showing "a more self-indulgent and womanish disposition." He tells himself that he should be "virile and mature, a statesman, a Roman, and a ruler." In an outburst that Marcus Aurelius may be directing against himself, he raves, "A black heart! A womanish, willful heart, the heart of a brute, a beast of the field; childish, stupid, and false; a huckster's heart, a tyrant's heart." He also groups homosexuals with tyrants, and in a moment of Stoic clarity, he wonders "In what extraordinary pleasures do robbers, perverts, parricides, and tyrants find their enjoyment!"
Why exactly can't a woman be a Stoic? What prevents a homosexual from understanding universal truth? Epictetus attacks an adulterer as "a wolf or an ape," and suggests that he ought to be pitched "somewhere on a dung heap, as a useless utensil, and a bit of dung." At times I get the feeling that the Stoics are absolutely committed to upholding the social structure. They seem to find it much easier to forgive thieves and murderers than men whose conduct might challenge accepted social norms.
Since the Stoics believed that nothing external to a person's mind affected his ultimate happiness, they had a great deal of scope in deciding what sort of government would be the best. Government itself deals with material reality and so is an "indifferent" from their point of view. Nevertheless, I would guess that many Stoics believed in stoicacracy.
Epictetus generally examines the negative power that government can exert over the individual. At one point, though, he parallels my thinking in Laws of the Jungle. I wrote: "And just what is this government? It's a man-made invention. It's not some natural phenomenon or a special creation of God. Government's an invention, just like the light bulb or the radio." Epictetus creates a dialogue in which a tyrant proclaims, "All men pay respect to me." His answer puts government in its proper perspective. "Well, I also pay respect to my platter, and I wash it and wipe it . . . Well then, are these things superior to me? No, but they supply some of my wants, and for this reason I take care of them. When the ruler proclaims that all men serve him, Epictetus replies, "Well, do I not attend to my ass? Do I not wash his feet? Do I not clean him? Do you (the tyrant) not know that every man has regard to himself, and to you just the same as he has regard to his ass?"
Epictetus always accents the negative in the material world, and so it is with government. "When a tyrant says to a man 'I will chain your leg,' he who values his leg says, 'Do not; have pity': but he who values his own will says, 'If it appears more advantageous to you, chain it.'" He amplifies his remark, "Zeus has set me free: do you think he intended to allow his own son to be enslaved? But you (the tyrant) are master of my carcass: take it."
I have previously said that the material world has an effect on the mind and the will, but I didn't explain. Imagine a person who sustains a brain injury and cannot understand what the Stoics are saying. Now suppose that modern medicine is able to restore the person's mental faculties. Or take the case of a baby whose brain development would be impaired without the proper prenatal treatment. In these extreme cases, we see that the material world has an effect on the brain; and we know that, whatever the mind is, it cannot function properly in a severely damaged brain. Now the only question is where we draw the line.
I certainly agree with Epictetus that people in the most extreme circumstances can still exert their wills. Marcus Aurelius puts the matter plainly: "True, others may hinder the carrying out of certain actions; but they cannot obstruct my will, nor the disposition of my mind." But he speaks as one who has already discovered the truth. Unless one has time, inclination, and a certain degree of comfort, he is not likely to seek his or any other truth. I believe that material well-being does have an effect on inner happiness, even if only an indirect one; and it's for this reason that the question of government is relevant to human happiness. Of course, my thinking is completely different from that of the Stoics, "The state was invented for me, to make me happier, but a funny thing has happened: If I don't want this invention, people are outraged. No one calls me unpatriotic for refusing to buy a light bulb. If I don't choose to spend my money on a radio, no one says that I'm immoral. Why should anarchy upset everyone?"
At first glance, it appears that Marcus Aurelius believed that government was wholly beneficial to human happiness. Whereas Epictetus believed that man existed to be a spectator of God's works, Marcus Aurelius emphasized man's duty to his fellow man: "Men exist for each other." He says, "What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee," implicitly inviting us to think of people as social insects. Such a saying would make a good motto for a totalitarian regime. Marcus Aurelius is constantly encouraging himself to do his duty. "If you are doing what is right, never mind whether you are freezing with cold or beside a good fire; heavy-eyed or refreshed from a sound sleep; reviled or applauded; in the act of dying, or about some other business." We keep remembering that his duty was to rule the Roman Empire.
At times, though, Marcus Aurelius hints at something greater than Rome. A poet, now unknown, referred to Athens as "Dear city of Cerops!" (its legendary founder). Marcus Aurelius asks whether we might not exclaim, "Dear city of God!" "Civitas Dei" is the same phrase that St. Augustine took as the title of his work. Marcus Aurelius probably saw himself and Rome as a metaphor for man in the universe. No doubt, he regarded the duty he was performing for Rome as duty to his fellow man, but it was also symbolic of the duty that any person in any circumstance owed to those around him.
If we inquire into this metaphor a little more deeply than Marcus Aurelius intended, we see that he regards government itself as good and beneficial to humans, at least on the material level. Pushing the metaphor to the extreme, we find a psychological basis for Stoicism. The Stoics did put themselves above other people. It is quite natural for a Stoic to compare himself to an emperor of the universe. Epictetus referred to himself as Zeus's own son, just the sort of talk that put Jesus in so much trouble. Milton identified this characteristic of the philosophers when he wrote, "The Stoics, first in philosophic pride."
Ultimately, the Stoics believed that governments were "indifferent" to human happiness because they dealt with the material world. Their conservatism was not like the Christians'. The Christian conservatives reason that man is naturally evil and needs to be reigned in by the state, that any attempt to improve the state will be doomed by man's evil nature. The Stoics regard the state as diversion from man's real business, improving his will and character.
Epictetus, as the professional Stoic, was indifferent to death. In fact, he felt the need to make arguments against suicide. He quotes Socrates approvingly, "if one of our commanders has appointed me to a certain post, it is my duty to keep and maintain it, and to resolve to die a thousand times rather than desert it." But suicide is always a possibility for him; or, as he says several times, "the door is open." He puts his dignity above everything and reminds us that Euripides wrote, "Not death is evil, but a shameful death."
Marcus Aurelius's view of death was bound up with his idea of mutability. "Moreover, what keeps the whole world in being is Change: not merely change of the basic elements, but also change of the larger elements they compose." Still, as in other matters, he feels the need to convince himself that death is no evil. "You embark; you make the voyage; you reach port: step ashore, then. Into another life? There are gods everywhere, even yonder. Into final insensibility? Then you will be out of the grip of pains and pleasures, and thrall no longer to this earthen vessel."
In this uncertainty, Marcus Aurelius differs from other Stoics. He often show a kind of agnosticism that Epictetus never does. "As for truth, it is so veiled in obscurity that many reputable philosophers assert the impossibility of reaching any certain knowledge. Even the Stoics admit ... that all our intellectual conclusions are fallible."
Nevertheless he remembers that everything is God's will and so must be good, "Everything that happens is as normal and expected as the spring rose of the summer fruit; this is true of sickness, death, slander, intrique, and all the other things that delight or trouble foolish men." He defines death simply: "Death: a release from the impressions of sense, from twitchings of appetite, from excursions of thought, a from service to the flesh."
For the Stoics, the desire for life is like other material desires, unworthy of a philosopher. In this point, they are reminiscent of the Buddhists, who equate desire with suffering. Marcus Aurelius states the matter differently. He suggests that we are in a great flowing river with everything constantly changing. Desire for material things simply makes no sense. "It would be like setting the affection on some sparrow flitting by, which in the selfsame moment is lost to sight."
With my subjectivist point of view, I like another quote that I believe came from a Stoic, "Where I am, there is no death." Once I have settled the question of what I am, it doesn't make much difference where I am. I think there is much in what the Stoics say, particularly about everything's being God's will. If the universe is the work of God, there must be no evil in it. But what of our own foolishness and ignorance? Is that not a part of the universe too? I say that I am not evil. I am as perfect in this second as the perfect world is. In that case, I won't trouble myself about the matter further. And if I fall in love with a sparrow that is out of my sight before I blink, well then, that must be good too. I just don't understand why.