Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Stoic Week day 7: Nature

The final day of the Stoic Week takes us to the Stoic view of Nature, which is at the same time naive and perceptive. We will need to reconcile it with our own modern view, which is in itself an interesting exercise.

The works of the gods are full of providence, and the works of fortune are not separate from nature or the interweaving and intertwining of the hings governed by providence. Everything flows from there. Further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is brought by the nature of the whole and what maintains that nature is good for each part of nature. Just as the changes in the elements maintain the universe so too do the changes in the compounds.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.3

We know, living on a world in which resources are rapidly waning and that is slowly turning into a trap from which our civilization might not get out alive, that Nature is not so benign and constant in nurturing us.

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Stoic Week day 6: Resilience

We go back to Marcus Aurelius again, and the guy is at it again with the following…

Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is y bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ This kind of event could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have borne it without getting upset.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

In the end, for the Stoics, it’s what we carry that counts – so if the outside world sucks, the important thing is that I am able to tap my own personal mental resources to weather the storm.

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Stoic Week day 5: Emotions

Terribly late, because we took a night off to see some friends and have dinner together. More of an Epicurean evening than a Stoic one, but still, today’s topic is emotion, and we start with Epictetus, a former slave that became a philosopher.

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible, or else it would have seemed so to Socrates too; no, it is in the judgement that death is terrible that the terror lies. Accordingly, whenever we are impeded, disturbed or distressed, we should never blame anyone else but only ourselves, that is, our judgements. It is an act of a poorly educated person to blame others when things are going badly for him; one who has taken the first step towards being properly educated blames himself, while one who is fully educated blames neither anyone else nor himself.

Epictetus, Handbook, 5

So, what should we do with our emotions?

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Stoic Week day 4: Community

Fourth day of the Stoic Week, we are beginning to end, and again the suggested text to be pondered brings back high school memories:

It is important to understand that nature creates in parents affection for their children; and parental affection is the source from which we trace the shared community of the human race … As it is obvious that it is natural to us to shrink from pain, so it is clear that we derive from nature itself the motive to love those to whom we have given birth. From this motive is developed the mutual concern which unites human beings as such. The fact of their common humanity means that one person should feel another to be his relative.

Cicero, On Ends, 3.62-3.

There is in the Stoics this idea of interconnectedness (is that a word?) of all people that is central in their development of a social policy. We are all the same tribe, and we should work together as part of the same unit – an extension of what Marcus Aurelius told us yesterday.

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Stoic Week Day 3: Friends and relations

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognised the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1

The third day in the Stoic Week hits close to home – and Marcus Aurelius reminds me of a thing I’ve been repeating like a mantra for the last two years: as a writer, I am in competition only with myself, and I am (or I should be) part of a community.

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Stoic Week Day 2: Virtue

Second day of the Stoic Week, and things get complicate with the arrival on the scene of Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher, and the question whether we should seek fulfillment within ourselves or through external factors. The instigating quote is…

If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self- control, courage […] turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found […] but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to what is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6
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