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 although the texts about stoicism that we have today are quite easy to read and understand superficially, even for the casual reader, a deep and authenic understanding of them is often nonexistent.
The essence of stoicism consists in distinguishing between the things that depend on us and the things that don’t depend on us:
Depend on us:
-Desire or aversion.
-Impulse to action or non-action.
-Positive or negative judgment of our desires and aversions, of our impulses to action or non-action.
These things depend exclusively and totally on us, we have power over them and they can correspond morally to good or evil in relation to their accordance or non-accordance to Nature.
Don’t depend on us:
-The things external to us, on which our will has no power, or in need of fortune to be obtained: work, family, wealth, poverty, health, 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 is, in any way it will affect our lives: they should be seen as the work of fate. Anyway stoicism doesn’t say us 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 to it”.
According to stoicism we should have aversion exclusively for what depends on us but isn’t in accordance with Nature, e.g. for what is not not virtuous, moral and honourable. To distinguish the things that depend on us from those that don’t depend on us we have to look at every event, situation, person or thing for what it really is, removing all the represenations of the mind, the instinctive judgments that these events, situations, persons and things may project upon us. If my mind is shocked by the stormy sea in reality it is not skocked by it but by my judgment on it: the stormy sea is not something that depends on me, it is neither a good nor an evil, it is just a stormy sea.
The judgments we formulate on what doesn’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 that particular judgment is nothing else than a representation of the mind: at this point we will be able to see that particular event, situation, person or thing for what it really is; therein lies stoicism, in seeing everything for what it really is, 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 fearsome, otherwise it would have seemed such also to Socrates. But it’s the judgment we formulate about death, namely that it is fearsome, to be fearsome in death. Therefore when we encounter difficulties or are troubled or sad, we should not ascribe the responsibility to someone else, but to ourselves, that is to say to our judgments: it is typical of who has not yet been educated to attribute to others the responsibility of his evils; it is typical of who is at the beginning of his education to attribute the responsibility of them to himself; it is typical of who has completed his education to not attribute the responsibility of them 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 the 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 make 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 lies in the fact that not all men express the same opinion about the things that don’t depend on us. Not all men are shaken by the stormy sea; not all men are shaken by poverty; not all men are happy of their wealth; not all men are shaken by their disease or by the approaching of their death; not all men are shaken by the premature death of a member of their family, etc.
It means that the things and events can’t be the real cause of our reactions, cause 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 simply be judged 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 deep inner 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 try to survive doing everything that is in his power, and this depends on him, but this doesn’t mean 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 just 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, depths and rigidities in the texts of the philosophers quoted 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!