Stoicism is one of the most interesting European philosphies, and has as prominent representatives Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. It is often misunderstood due to the fact that it has not, apparently, a specific “technical” language concerning its doctrine. The consequence is that while the texts about Stoicism that we have today are quite easy to read and understand superficially, even for the casual reader, their deep and authenic understanding of them is often nonexistent.
The essence of Stoicism consists in distinguish between the things that depend on us and the things that don’t depend on us:
Depend on us:
-Desire or aversion (for something).
-Impulse to action or to non-action.
-Judgment (positive or negative) of our desires and aversions, of our impulses to action or to non-action.
These things depend exclusively and totally on us, we have power over them, and they can correspond morally to good or evil whether they are compliant or non-compliant to Nature.
Don’t depend on us:
-Things external to us, on which our will has no power, or in need of fortune to be obtained: wealth, health, fame, work, family, poverty, disease, death, etc.
All the things that don’t depend on us are neither a good nor an evil, but something indifferent that must be accepted as it stands, in any way it will affect our lives: they should be seen as the work of Fate. However, Stoicism doesn’t say that we should not worry, or that we should give up obtaining or avoiding this sort of things: we should only remember that they don’t depend on us, and then act accordingly whatever happens in relation to them.
“Among the things that exist, some depend on us, the other don’t depend on us. Depend on us: value judgment, impusle to act, desire, aversion, and in one word, all those that are properly our affairs. Don’t depend on us the body, our possessions, the opinions that the others have of us, the public positions, and in one word all those that aren’t properly our affairs”.
“Suppress therefore the aversion that you can feel for all the things that don’t depend on you and transfer it to the things that, among those that depend on us, are contrary to nature”.
“Impassibility in front of the events that come from external causes, justice in the works generated by a cause that comes from you; impulse and action only in view of a common good: this is for man to act according to nature”.
“I am a mixture of body and soul: for the body the sensible things are neither good nor bad, because matter has no power to grasp the difference between them; for the mind, instead, are indifferent the activities not falling within its sphere of action, while those that depend on it are all under its dominion. Even these, however, affect the mind only in relation to the present, because those related to the future and to the past are, in that moment, indifferent for it”.
According to Stoicism we must have aversion exclusively for what depend on us but isn’t compliant to Nature (it is not virtuous, moral, honourable…). To distinguish the things that depend on us from those that don’t depend on us we have to look at every object, person or event for what it really is, removing the represenations of the mind, the instinctive judgments that these objects, persons or events project upon us: “The stormy sea upsets my mind. It is the stormy sea that upsets me? No, it is my judgment on it. It is not something that depends on me, therefore it is neither a good nor an evil. The stormy sea is only the stormy sea”.
The judgments in relation to things or events that don’t depend on us are hard if not impossible to remove immediatly but yes, we can remove them after asking ourselves if what we are judging depends on us or not, and if our judgment in relation to that particular thing or event is nothing else than a representation of the mind: at this point we can see that particular thing or event for what it really is. Therein lies Stoicism, in seeing things and events for what they really are, without mental representations.
“Therefore train yourself to immediately add to every painful representation: <<you are only a representation, you are not at all what you represent>>. Then examine this representation, and put it to test with the help of the rules at your disposal, in first place and above all of this rule: we have to count it among the things that depend on us or among those that don’t depend on us? And if it is part of the things that don’t depend on us, keep in mind that it doesn’t concern you”.
“What disturbs men are not the things, but the judges that they formulate on the things. For example, death has nothing terrible, otherwise it would have seemed like that also to Socrates. But it’s the judgment we formulate about death, namely that it is terrible, to be fearsome in death. Therefore when we encounter difficulties or are troubled or sad, we should not ascribe the responsibility to another, but to ourselves, that is to our judgments: it is indicative of who has not yet been educated to ascribe to others the responsibility of his evils; it is indicative of who is at the beginning of his education to ascribe the responsibility to himself; it is indicative of who has completed his education to not ascribe the responsibility nor to others nor to himself”.
“Look at things as they are, in themselves, distinguishing matter, cause and purpose”.
“Therefore don’t go beyond what you see and don’t add anything personal to the immediate impressions you receive from things or facts, and nothing bad will come to you”.
“Many are the superfluous and annoying things that you can eliminate, because they exist only in the opinion that you create about them”.
“Throw away the opinion, and you will be safe! Who prevents you to get rid of it?”.
Whereby, what disturbs men are not the things or events but the judges that they formulate about these things or events. The proof of this is the fact that not all men express the same opinion about the things that don’t depend on us. Not all men are distraught by the stormy sea. Not all men are distraught by poverty. Not all men are happy of their wealth. Not all men are happy of their fame. Not all men are distraught by their disease. Not all men are distraught by the premature and/or accidental death of their son, daughter or wife. Not all men are distraught by the approaching of their death (so the ancient European warrior had a stoic attitude towards death), etc.
It means that the things and events can’t be the real cause of our reactions, that instead must be searched inside us: our reactions depend on the individual structure of our minds, although it may seem that it’s the thing or event itself to determine our positive or negative reaction towards it.
These examples and all the other countless things and events that don’t depend on us should be considered by the stoic man, as he was intended to be, neither a good nor an evil, but indifferently: what is not under our control should be seen as something that is not under our control.
On the other hand, concerning the things that depend on us, there is no man that would do something that depends on him, but that is not compliant to Nature, without having the same awareness of having done something wrong, whether he likes it or not. If you think about it, it’s indeed impossible for that to happen.
A man must judge the situation he faces and act accordingly using his skills, he must survive doing everything in his power (this depends on him), but this doesn’t mean that he should blame something that doesn’t depend on him, or project personal opinions on a certain thing or event in relation to his situation: for example, he shouldn’t judge the stormy sea differently only because HE is on a boat in the middle of it, the stormy sea doesn’t change in relation to this…it doesn’t become good or bad in relation to its role in a man’s vicissitudes. The stormy sea doesn’t depend on us and it remains always and exclusively only a stormy sea, both for the pilot and the observer who risks nothing.
If you keep in mind these stoic precepts you’ll find new meanings, profundity and rigidity in the texts of the philosophers cited above. Stoicism, as it was intended to be, was much more challenging, demanding and even extreme compared to how it’s commonly perceived, but remains in any case among the most important and suited classical philosophies for the European man!